Skier Maggie Voisin, 17, is standing at the top of the X Games Aspen slopestyle course on Friday. Live television cameras are aimed at her face and her friends and family are all standing by, anxiously waiting for her turn to drop in. She’s nervous, sure, but she’s also strangely relaxed.
“Take it mellow,” she reminds herself as she takes a deep breath.
It has been over a year since Voisin has stood atop a competition course with judges, cameras and fans all looking at her. Over a year since she landed in the hospital with a torn ACL in her first contest back after she had just recovered from a broken fibula. Over a year since she’s felt this kind of pressure.
But she puts all the nerves aside and does what she knows best; what she’s been doing for as long as she can remember. She clicks into her skis and points them downhill. She maneuvers the course’s rail section with a confident grace, spinning backwards on and off the narrow rails, then she soars over three massive jumps, throwing back-to-back 900s -- two and a half full rotations -- and landing cleanly.
The TV announcer, Luke Van Valin, says about Voisin’s performance, “Any other year, that run would win.” Voisin doesn’t take home the gold though. In fact, she narrowly misses the podium with a solid fourth-place finish against a competitive field that’s topped by a 13-year-old Estonian wonderkid named Kelly Sildaru.
But Voisin was still the top American in the field with Devin Logan and Keri Herman taking seventh and eighth place, respectively. For Voisin, she’s just happy to be back on her skis -- strong and healthy -- after a tough couple of seasons.
“A year ago my goal was to be back at X Games and to ski the best that I could and I did that,” she said. “The fact that I’ve only been jumping for a month now and I was able to put down that run, I’m just super happy to end up where I did.”
Voisin has come a long way to reach this point. The daughter of two ski bums, she was born and raised in the small, snow-covered town of Whitefish, Mont. She has an older brother and sister as well as a twin brother, who she started skiing with at age three at the local slope, now called Whitefish Mountain Resort.
“I was a tomboy growing up,” she said. “I was always chasing my brothers around.”
She dabbled in ski racing, but it was freestyle skiing that really drew her in.
“When I was around 12, I was really fearless,” she remembers. “I’d go to these events with big jumps and I’d just think, ‘OK, here we go.’”
At 14 and already showing major talent, Voisin made the tough choice to leave her family in Montana and move to Park City, Utah, to live with a host family and train with an elite ski group called Axis Freeride.
“I realized if I wanted to take skiing to my full potential, I’d have to move away,” Voisin said . “I was supposed to go to Park City for a week to train with this team, but a week turned into months.”
That winter, she made her debut on the pro slopestyle circuit, became the youngest member of the U.S. Freeskiing Team, and won the Association of Freeskiing Professionals’ season-ending championships in Whistler, B.C. ESPN named her rookie of the year.
In 2014, then age 15, Voisin got her first invite to compete at X Games Aspen. On her way there, she was riding shotgun in the car with her coach when he got a phone call. They pulled over and Voisin put her headphones on and cranked up the music so she couldn’t hear the conversation. She knew what it was about and simply couldn’t bear to listen.
At one point, her coach looked over and gave her a thumbs up and a goofy grin. Turns out, she had edged her way onto the American team to compete at the debut of slopestyle -- a growing ski discipline that combines jumps and freestyle tricks -- at the Winter Games in Sochi.
That week, knowing the Olympics were happening a month later, she competed as an X Games rookie and walked away with a silver medal in women’s slopestyle.
“I went in with no expectations,” she said. “When I was 12, it became my goal to win an X Games medal. And here I was doing it just three years later. I got that far because I love skiing and I have so much fun doing it.”
The next month, Voisin and her parents and her grandma flew to Russia, where she was primed to break barriers as the youngest U.S. Winter Olympian since 1972. But then, on the third day of training, she fell in the rail section of the course, twisting her leg and breaking her fibula above the ankle.
When she saw that crack in the X-ray, she knew her Olympic dreams for that moment were dashed.
“I just broke down,” she recalled. “It was really tough. But looking back on that season, I’m so grateful for all the things I was able to accomplish.”
She spent the rest of the year rehabbing the injury, and in December of 2014, she returned to competition at a Dew Tour contest in Breckinridge, Colo. “This was my first event back to prove I was still on top,” she said.
She finished the qualification round in first place, but then on the first run of finals, she fell and could feel the pop in her knee. It was her ACL tearing, and it’d require surgery and nine months of rehabilitation. She was out for the rest of the season.
Which brings us back to X Games 2016, which was Voisin’s first contest back after double injuries. Her first chance to again prove she has what it takes.
Now, instead of being an underdog, Voisin is America’s best hope in women’s slopestyle skiing, and if all goes her way, she’ll be a major contender when the event returns to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Voisin will be 19 by then. Not that she’s stressing about any of that just yet. She’s keeping it mellow.
“For this season, I just want to play it smart and make it through the year. This year for me is about loving skiing and having fun and really enjoying what’s important about skiing,” she said. “I have so many years ahead of me.”