Bernie Lillis points with pride to a framed photograph on the mantelpiece above the fireplace of his Fairport home. There we see a closeup of his son, Chris, at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. While other athletes were snapping selfies amid that joyously chaotic scene three weeks ago, Chris focused intently on a speech being delivered by a dignitary.
“I love that shot,’’ Bernie said. “That is so Chris. He’s in the moment, has the look of a man on a mission.”
A few days later, Chris’s mission would be accomplished when he executed a twisting, quintuple, backward flip and nailed the landing to propel Team USA to a gold medal in the mixed aerial competition. “It still hasn’t sunk in,’’ Bernie was saying the other day. “It’s been such a whirlwind journey. It still seems somewhat surreal.”
And probably will for some time.
This gold-medal trek began 18 years ago when 5-year-old Chris followed older brother Jonathon onto the slopes of Bristol Mountain, a ski resort 35 miles south of Rochester that boasts some of the highest vertical rises between the Adirondacks and Rockies. Jon was a natural from the start, and under the training of esteemed coach John Kroetz quickly established himself as an up-and-comer on the resort’s freestyle ski team. Chris idolized his big bro, so it’s no mystery why he would want to follow him up the chair lift and down the hills. It’s also no mystery why the youngest son, Michael Lillis, better known as Mikey, also would want to partake in what rapidly became a family tradition.
By 2017, Jon had won a World Cup and both he and Chris, who is three years younger, were on the verge of making the roster for the following year’s Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Meanwhile, Mikey was honing his skills at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. The boys’ success prompted Bernie and his wife, Jamie, to come up with the name, “Team Lillis,” which they began stamping on T-shirts and sweatshirts. “You don’t want to favor one kid over the other, so we thought that would be a good way to make this a family thing,’’ Bernie explained. “And, over time, it’s come to represent not only the three of them, but also their coaches, the community that’s been so supportive, and other athletes.”
It takes a village to make an Olympian. It also takes an incredible amount of dedication and moxie, especially when adversity strikes.
The lives of the Lillis family changed forever on October 21, 2017, when Mikey died unexpectedly in his sleep at age 17. News of his death rocked the ski community, and no one took it harder than Jon and Chris. We all grieve in different ways, and so it was with Mikey’s older brothers.
“Jon was extremely angry and I think he really channeled that anger into his skiing,’’ recalled Bernie, who has an Olympic-ring vanity license plate on his truck that reads: 4MIKEY. “He was going to do everything in his power to make that Olympic team, and do this for Michael, and he wound up achieving that goal.”
Chris, meanwhile, really struggled maintaining the laser-focus that had become his trademark. Not long after Mikey died, Chris told a reporter, “I will spend the rest of my life trying to live up to the person he would have become.”
Chris was on the verge of joining Jon on the U.S. Olympic freestyle team two months later, but during a practice run 10 minutes before competing in a World Cup event in Beijing, he crashed landed, fracturing his femur and tearing his ACL.
“My speculation is that Chris was having a really hard time processing his younger brother’s death, and he just wasn’t focusing that day in Beijing, and wound up crashing,’’ Bernie said. “You’re 50 feet in the air and you’re twisting and turning, so you need to be super locked in, and I don’t think he was. He was then faced with a very rigorous and long rehabilitation, but, in retrospect, maybe that wasn’t such a terrible thing, because that time away gave him a chance to heal physically and emotionally. He’s so much stronger now than he was four years ago.”
Strong enough to realize his dream of soaring for the gold. And when he earned that life-changing precious medal three weeks ago after executing a jump that few skiers on the planet have mastered, Mikey was there with him in spirit. Just as Jon Lillis had done while finishing eighth in his competition at the 2018 Winter Games, Chris wore a glass pendant infused with his little brother’s ashes. Jon and Chris also honored Mikey a few years ago by getting matching silhouetted tattoos of their brother on their chests, not far from their hearts.
Though Chris was disappointed he didn’t medal in his other events, he is looking forward to returning home in mid-March for the national freestyle championships at Bristol. That reunion will give him a chance to let people hold the gold medal they helped him win. He is committed to competing in the 2026 Winter Olympics in Northern Italy. By that time, the 23-year-old hopes he’ll have completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Utah. Bernie said Chris has expressed an interest in pursuing a career in public service, possibly even running for political office.
Regardless of where his journeys take him, he’ll always have this special moment, frozen in time. Spurred on by Mikey and the rest of Team Lillis, Chris soared five stories into the air and landed atop an Olympic medal stand. Mission accomplished.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is The Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.