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‘Speed never scared me; Going big never scared me’ 14-year-old mogul skier has her sights set on achieving Olympic firsts

Aerial tricks are part of mogul competitions, and 14-year-old Ava Keenan, practiced flips during a training run on Vail Mountain’s Golden Peak on March 27, as her coach and a friend look on. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

It was a miserable Wednesday morning in Vail – a depressing gloom in the sky and treacherous ice on the roads on and about the Pass. Walking around was no picnic either. Watching students navigate the sloping sidewalk up to the Ski & Snowboard Club – wobbling along while toting equipment bags that, for some, appeared to weigh more than they do – it was hard not to envision a most unfortunate human avalanche.

It was the kind of day Ava Keenan said might've tempted her to pull the covers over her head and roll over in bed. It was, after all, what a normal 14-year-old is supposed to say. However, it soon became obvious that Keenan didn't mean it – and moments later, the reason why came into complete focus.

Aerial artistry

On the slopes, Keenan would soon complete a Back X, a back flip that includes her skis moving into the shape of the letter as she tumbles through the air. As impressive as the move looks, it’s relatively tame – nothing compared to another move, a cork jump.

According to her father, Jim Keenan, you’d barely go beyond the fingers of one hand trying to count the number of girls in the entire country pulling off corks in competition.

“That’s it – and she’s the youngest,” he said.

At one point, Keenan wanted to be the top-ranked mogul skier in the U.S. by the time she was 16. Now she says she’s willing to wait until after high school graduation.

After that’s checked off the list, the goal is to become the first Black athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in the discipline, which combines free skiing with speed and acrobatics – think Shaun White with a pair of Rossignols strapped to his legs instead of a snowboard.

Already a three-time U.S. Freestyle Junior national champion, it only seems like a matter of time before Keenan finds her way to the medal stand at a future Olympiad.

This is why, even on the most miserable days, odds are one wouldn’t find her sleeping in.

“Well, I just think about getting better – I really like getting better no matter what it is,” Keenan said. “I just like that feeling; I also think about all the people I compete against, how maybe doing this will make me just that much better and will give you the edge in the next competition.”

Caitlin Clark was 14 once too

If you watched any of the NCAA women’s basketball tournaments, it was impossible to escape Caitlin Clark – the transcendent University of Iowa star was everywhere, both on and off the court, where she could be seen in a series of commercials for companies like Xfinity and State Farm insurance. One of the ads features Clark as a second-grader, dribbling a basketball almost as big as she was.

As she ascended through the ranks, Clark has said she felt different from many of her teammates; even at Iowa, there were times when she thought her peers didn’t care as much about the sport as she did.

The same may be true for Keenan; she said many of her classmates (an eighth-grader, who goes to school after morning training) have no idea how dedicated and accomplished she is.

For her part, Keenan said she doesn’t know much about Clark other than watching her sink three-pointers, but when asked what athletes she admires she immediately responds with the “Holy Trinity” of maniacal drive – Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and the late Kobe Bryant.

Jim admits that his daughter’s career didn’t begin as a way for her to find the spotlight, but rather, as a means to keep his kids occupied while he attacked the slopes. He also concedes that, after one of Keenan's youth coaches told him about the limitless potential that could be reached if she dedicated herself to the sport, it didn’t take long for him to move himself and his three daughters from Denver to Vail.

But this isn’t the story of a parent trying to live vicariously through his child, or dragging her kicking and screaming into a quest for glory. Jim said as accomplished as she is, if Keenan wanted to walk away tomorrow to dabble in art, or scribble in her journals, he wouldn’t bat an eye.

As if she ever would.

“Ninety-nine percent of this is driven by me,” Keenan said. “He's always told me, if I don't want to do it anymore, I don't have to do it. And I've never ever told him – I didn't ever think about wanting to not do it.

“Speed never scared me; going big never scared me; when I was five, we were walking downtown in Denver, and we saw this flier for this trampoline place – just bounce around and have fun type thing … you walk in, there's all these Olympic trampolines and stuff, and this roller ramp that you could take roller skis in and jump off, and I was like, ‘Well, this place is really cool.’ Everything was a little bit scary, but I went there probably five days a week for at least an hour and a half every day after school, doing new stuff every time. I mean, I did my first back flip on a trampoline at five,” she said.

“I got all the fear out of the way there. I just got it out of the way.”

She’s got next

Countless athletes set goals, or yearn and strive for success – only to find themselves dumbfounded, afraid to deal with all that comes with greatness. Keenan said she’s never had that fear, still, on this particular Wednesday, as she packed up her equipment in one bag, before reaching for another that holds her schoolbooks, the 14-year-old does allow herself some grace. A moment to clutch a guardrail before hurtling up, up, and away into the future.

Being the best mogul skier in the country in two years would be “amazing,” she said. “But I would also feel like it would just add a lot of pressure that maybe wouldn't be super helpful. I feel like I could just wait a little longer to get to that spot instead of putting so much pressure on myself to get to that spot.

“Yeah, I think I'm a little bit too hard on myself sometimes. That's something I want to work on this year, not to be so hard on myself.”

To read more stories from Colorado Public Radio, visit www.cpr.org.