3rd place in singles moguls at the FIS Freestyle World Cup in Ruka, Finland
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that 17-year-old moguls phenom Kai Owens loves “pretty much all sports.” She doesn’t get to compete in anything else on a high level due to her time commitment to skiing, but when she’s not training, she plays hockey with her teammates from the Ski & Snowboard Club Vail program, and sneaks in a pick-up soccer match whenever she can. In fact, on the World Cup Tour, she’s known to join in as often as possible in a soccer-inspired juggling game called Duff to let off some steam.
Owens—the American skier from Vail, Colo., who was crowned Rookie of the Year in 2021 and who just nabbed bronze in singles moguls at the FIS Freestyle World Cup in Ruka, Finland in December—is actually a pretty regular kid.
Adopted from China by her skier parents and put on skis at 18 months old, Owens learned to tame bump fields on the legendary mogul runs of Winter Park’s Mary Jane from an early age. From there, the sky was the limit. Owens joined Ski & Snowboard Club Vail and excelled in every discipline from downhill to Nordic.
She was recruited for a water ramping program the summer she turned 6 and it was enough to get her hooked. “I loved that so much I joined moguls the following winter,” she says.
It goes without saying that all Olympic skiers are amazing athletes, but Owens’ cork 720 sets her apart from the competition. The amount of athleticism, balance, and pure guts it takes to master the mogul discipline like this puts Owens in a class of her own. The moguls competition isn’t just bashing bumps to the finish line. Each course comprises three distinct sections of moguls separated by two jumps, where skiers launch into the air performing aerial maneuvers.
“I love the challenge of it,” says Owens. “It’s really difficult, you have to be a really good skier and a really good jumper, and trying to master all of it is really hard. The jumping part allows me to show off my strength as an athlete, and as a mogul skier specifically.”
Last season was Owens’ best yet, including a gold medal in dual moguls and a fourth-place finish in singles moguls at Deer Valley, and sixth place at the World Ski Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan. All in a season marked by quarantines, complicated travel requirements, and the general stress of competing during a global pandemic.
“I’m really proud of being named Rookie of the Year last season, but I’m even more proud of overcoming all the challenges I faced leading up to it,” says Owens, who competed with a broken rib in Ruka, Finland in November of 2020.
From not being able to train properly to laying bare the mental health issues that built up over the course of the pandemic, Owens says that keeping her focus was extremely difficult. “When the 2019-’20 season got cut short when it all first hit, that was my first World Cup and all of a sudden it was just over. It was abrupt. Surrounding myself with positive people really helped.”
One of those people is Owens’ mentor and fellow moguls teammate Tess Johnson, another standout moguls skier, now 21, who, like Owens, was named to the U.S. Ski Team at 14 years old. Also from Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, Johnson was Owens’ role model as she rose through the ranks. Owens was 10 when Johnson was named to the U.S. Ski Team in 2014, and that was the moment when she knew that she wanted to follow in her footsteps.
“I always looked up to her, and when she made the Olympic team, that’s when I realized that I could do this for real,” Owens says. (As of this writing, Owens was in the middle of a jam-packed schedule of Olympic qualifier events that run from November to mid-January.)
The two competed head-to-head in the quarterfinals of dual moguls during the Freestyle International in Deer Valley, Utah in February 2021. Three Americans would go on to sweep the podium in that event, with Owens on top, Hannah Soar in second place, and Johnson rounding out the trio with the bronze medal.
“It was a close one, I wanted to get her,” Johnson said of Owens after the competition, “but it was so much fun and I love dueling teammates in the round of four. Sweeping the podium with these girls, it’s a dream come true. They’re my sisters, they’re my best friends, it feels unreal. It’s an honor to be on such a progressive, hardworking women’s team.”
Competing in Beijing would be extra-special for Owens, providing another chance to visit her birth country—she went back once at 4 years old when her parents brought home her younger brother, Bode. In addition to the excitement of competing for the U.S. in her country of birth, Owens’ desire is also rooted in something less ambitious, and far more, well, delicious.
“I absolutely love Asian food,” she says. “I love to cook it and eat it. I can’t wait to eat rice for breakfast—and feel normal eating rice for breakfast!”