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Chris Lillis honors ‘Speedy’ Peterson, joins Ashley Caldwell with aerials silver at worlds

Chris Lillis honored Jeret “Speedy” Peterson in his silver medal run in the men's aerials at the 2021 FIS World Championships.

Chris Lillis honored Jeret “Speedy” Peterson in aerials at the world freestyle skiing championships as part of a double silver medal day for the U.S.

Earlier Wednesday, Ashley Caldwell also took silver, becoming the most decorated U.S. woman in her discipline at the biennial worlds.

Lillis became the first American since Peterson to perform a quintuple twisting triple backflip in competition -- a back double full-full-double full for second place at worlds in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Peterson performed his signature quint, “the Hurricane,” to take silver at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Peterson killed himself a year and a half later. He was 29. The Speedy Foundation was established later in 2011 for mental health education and suicide prevention.

“Speedy was just a larger-than-life icon in my eyes growing up,” Lillis, 22, said. “It shows me that I’m jumping well enough to maybe have the same kind of success that he had in his career, but also a tremendous honor to be put in the same sentence as someone I grew up in awe of.”

Lillis, who missed the PyeongChang Olympics after an ACL tear, took silver with 133.5 points on Wednesday behind Russian Maksim Burov, who repeated as world champion with 135 points. Another Russian, Pavel Krotov, took bronze as all three men on the podium performed the same jump in the super final, the maximum degree of difficulty allowed under the current rules.

Lillis, who expects all six super finalists at the Beijing Olympics to throw a quint (including Chinese medal threats who didn’t compete this season), graded his effort on Wednesday an A.

“Considering where I was and the limited amount of experience with it that I have,” he said. “In general, I feel like I’ve got more in the tank. I feel like I can perfect it and do it better. I don’t feel like that was necessarily the best one I could have done, but given the moment, given the amount of pressure I was under and it being the first time I was competing it, I was really happy.”

Lillis did 100 of the jumps into a pool in offseason training.

“Definitely nervous to go do it,” he said before the season. “Kind of feels like jumping on a plane.”

Lillis’ older brother, Jonathon, won the 2017 World title. He has stepped away from competing, but the brothers still live together in Park City and conversed daily this season while Chris competed in Europe.

“The season as a whole has been a rough and interesting ride,” said Lillis, who suffered deep bone bruises and cracked ribs in January, when he caught an edge in training shortly before hitting the kicker, smacked his body into the face of it, shot off it and landed on a knoll. “I definitely have made a step up into that next echelon of jumping and just looking for that consistency. I made a large step to where I ultimately want to be. Now it’s just how do I live there, be more consistent and be more comfortable with these kinds of tricks.”

Caldwell, a three-time Olympian, landed a back full-full-full -- a triple, in aerials lingo -- for 101.74 points as the last competitor in the women’s super final. Caldwell decided last season to back off on triples, but brought them back this year.

“Being able to go out there and do my [high degree of difficulty] and do well is very gratifying,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with timing of the Olympics. I needed to do triples this season to feel good and confident about going in next year and doing triples, so that was a big push.”

Australian Laura Peel, the top aerialist this World Cup season, took gold with 106.46 points, landing the same trick. Russian Lyubov Nikitina earned bronze.

Caldwell added silver to her gold from the 2017 Worlds, surpassing 1998 Olympic champion Nikki Stone for the best medal record in women’s aerials for an American in world championships history.

Caldwell was the lone American to reach the six-skier super final. Four Americans, including Caldwell, follow Peel in the World Cup season standings, but the other three (Winter Vinecki, Megan Nick and Kaila Kuhn) did not compete in Almaty.

“Unfortunately COVID-19 protocols prevented several aerials athletes from participating,” a U.S. Ski and Snowboard spokesperson said when asked about their absences.

Caldwell noted her own stress from traveling across Europe during the pandemic.

“It’s one thing to be worried about getting sick in your own country, and it’s another to be worried about getting sick in a foreign country and doing a high-risk sport that might lead you to the hospital,” she said. “A lot of information that athletes really didn’t think about before. Now they have to actually make the decision about whether or not to take additional risks when you’re traveling abroad and competing.”

Caldwell, who was the youngest U.S. athlete at the 2010 Winter Olympics at age 16, said going into the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018 that they might be her final Games. Now she’s on the verge of matching 1998 Olympic champion Eric Bergoust‘s national record four Olympic starts in aerials.

“I also have a different perspective being older and seeing kind of the end of my career could be around the corner,” said Caldwell, trying to become the second American woman to win an Olympic aerials medal after Stone. “I definitely appreciate every event a lot more, even when the results aren’t as I wish.

“I definitely see myself wanting to do other things [after the 2022 Olympics], but I don’t know if that means that I will totally stop aerials or maybe just take a year or two off. I really don’t know yet.”

Freestyle skiing worlds continue with mixed team aerials on Thursday. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

NBC Olympics researcher Rachel Thompson contributed to this report.

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