Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / On Sports / A loving team helped Chris Lillis ascend to Winter Olympic gold

A loving team helped Chris Lillis ascend to Winter Olympic gold

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.

x

Check Also

Tips for planning a business succession  (access required)

Planning for retirement and creating a contingency plan in the event of an unexpected exit from the workforce are critical ...

Tricks to sustaining the family trade: Succession planning scenarios to expect (access required)

We all know how a business can feel like our child. You spend many years — even decades — nurturing ...

Succession plans critical for survival of family-owned businesses (access required)

While family-owned businesses are commonplace in the United States, those that are multigenerational remain rare gems. According to Cornell University’s ...

Is your strategic plan both strategic and a plan? (access required)

There is a lot of discussion about strategic planning in not-for-profit circles lately. Evidently, moving through a global pandemic and ...

What’s so great about the 2022 Great Places to Work? (access required)

It’s my favorite time of year: Great Place to Work just announced the 25th Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work ...

Loyalty programs – what you should know about compliance with the CPPA (access required)

From the straightforward “buy 9 smoothies, get 1 free,” to sophisticated frequent flyer programs, loyalty programs are a staple in ...

Are cover letters really necessary? Hiring professionals have differing opinions (access required)

“I’m a hiring manager at a local company looking to fill several positions. I’ve noticed that about two-thirds of our ...

Investment acumen or inside information? (access required)

If you had known, in early 2020, that you might be working from home during a multi-year, global pandemic, would ...

The importance of female mentorship, leadership, and innovation in banking (access required)

In my 10 years at Tompkins and 35 cumulative years in the banking field, I’ve witnessed the industry undergo several ...

How not to set policy to reduce the price of gasoline (access required)

High gas prices in the U.S. cause a lot of pain for Americans every time they take their vehicles to ...

Highland Hospital Gala (access required)

This year’s casino-themed Highland Hospital Gala raised its second highest amount ever, with more than $650,000 gross net income thanks ...

Inflation: How did we get here and what can be done about it? (access required)

If you’re in your 50s - o.k. early 50s - you probably remember a time when a gallon of gas ...

Reflections on pediatrics, the pandemic, and the Golden Circle (access required)

Imagine this: Your business has been open for only five months and is doing really well. Revenue is higher than ...

Will 2022 be the year of the vacation home? (access required)

With some COVID-19 restrictions relaxing and others already lifted, the smell of tourism is in the air. Demand for leisure ...

Transition services valuable for aging population (access required)

What do you need to stay safe in your family home, even if your home is getting to be too ...

Elder transition planning: Family mediation for older adults & their loved ones (access required)

The journey of aging is rarely a smooth one. As older adults and their families face emotional, financial and health ...

Senior living communities consider how to be more diverse, inclusive, accessible (access required)

The nation’s senior population is the largest and most diverse in history, according to the most recent census data from ...

Why is inflation so scary for my retirement plan? (access required)

Over the past decade, investors experienced a best-case scenario of relatively low inflation and strong investment returns from both stocks ...

A thoroughbred racehorse whose impact was not lost on us

It seemed like a good deal at the time – a rattletrap Ford van with more than 100,000 miles on ...

Ensuring your financial plan can withstand negative conditions  (access required)

Financial plans differ based on individuals’ incomes, future goals, age and tolerance for risk, but often unconsidered in those plans ...

Boomerang employees: tips on how to welcome team members home (access required)

Every manager at every level has experienced it — that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach when one ...

Spring cleaning: Considering program sustainability (access required)

There has never been a better time to consider the sustainability of your program activities and take action to address ...

Financial advisors can guide through tough times (access required)

With the country facing rising inflation and interest rates, as well as the lingering COVID-19 pandemic and the war in ...

Are you discriminating against employees with caregiving responsibilities? (access required)

As the world enters year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has issued a warning ...

Rochester accelerates its pace to become top tech hub in America (access required)

Rochester is on its way to becoming a national hub for technology innovation. Experts predict that it has the highest ...

A simple game for investors: How would you play? (access required)

Some years ago, financial author and advisor, Bill Schultheis, devised a simple game to illustrate the difficulty faced by investors ...

You need to improve your technology, but where do you start? (access required)

Technology is advancing at warp speed and certainly some innovations could benefit you and your company, but it’s easy to ...

Innovation advancements on display as Rochester continues to grow its technology ecosystem (access required)

From LIDROTEC, a company with patent-pending wafer dicing laser machines for the semiconductor industry to Stratio, which provides artificial intelligence ...

Milo the Dog has had a golden impact on Red Wings baseball, community

They had trained together five days a week for nearly six months in the backyard solitude of Josh Snyder’s rural ...

M&A middle-market activity: What businesses need to know (access required)

 Understanding the ins and outs, trends and activities going on in M&A markets can help businesses make informed decisions including ...

5 things to consider before deciding to work for yourself (access required)

When people ask me what I do, now that I’m out of television, I simply say, “I have my own ...

M&A lawyers keep busy despite pandemic barriers (access required)

2021 was a record-breaking year globally and nationally for mergers (combining two separate businesses into one new legal entity) and ...

Ending violent crime requires building trust between police, community (access required)

Rochester has recently been the recipient of many state, federal and private investments that create a true path for transformational ...

Former UR assistant Jay Wright continues working his hoops magic

Mike Neer likes to joke that he doesn’t get enough credit for helping Jay Wright become the best-dressed coach in ...

Four ways to prepare your business for the future of digital payments (access required)

Digital transformation continues to sweep the country — especially as more companies and their customers embrace digital payment technologies.Here are ...

Managing Our Manufacturing Plants in 2022 (access required)

There have been dramatic shifts in both the needs and the realities of manufacturing the United States over the past ...

“Rounding Errors” Can Add Up Quickly (access required)

It’s time to talk about time. For many employees, their lunch break is a time when they can step away ...

Just In Time production method becoming obsolete with supply chain issues (access required)

Just In Time (JIT) is a production method pioneered in the 1930s by Toyota Motor Corporation as a means to ...

Rochester firms embrace 3D printing for multiple purposes (access required)

Firms are using 3D printing to create unique tools, parts and other objects right here in Rochester, allowing for new ...

From mentee to mentor: the benefits mentorship provides for women in business (access required)

March marks Women’s History Month. It is a time to honor the strong, brave women who have broken down barriers, ...

Working across the ages: multigenerational teams offer multiple benefits (access required)

Quick: How long is the average career? If you guessed 40 years, you would’ve been right a few years ago. ...

Energy, dedication drive entrepreneurs at any age (access required)

Younger women who grew up with technology and worked in the gig economy may be more comfortable with the pace ...

Opining on Brandon Beane, SU hoops, a poor investment, baseball’s return

If you pressed me to rank the most indispensable Buffalo Bills of this glorious era, I’d go with quarterback Josh ...

Topics that don’t focus on COVID-19 for nonprofit leaders (access required)

For obvious reasons, COVID-19-19 and the many elements of disruption it has caused continue to dominate conversation at organizations of ...

March worldwide water, climate events are close to home (access required)

March marks two worldwide awareness events for the environment: World Water Day and Earth Hour. In Rochester, New York, these ...

Revisiting Art Schlichter’s sad tale of gambling addiction

Monday’s seismic news that Atlanta Falcons star receiver Calvin Ridley had been suspended for the 2022 season for betting on ...

Mentoring is an art passed from one generation to the next (access required)

Ahhh, what to say about the important art of mentoring? It is certainly an art and, in preparation for this ...

Protect intellectual property from the start (access required)

When it comes to intellectual property (IP), the old English idiom “penny wise and pound foolish” never goes out of ...

Three takeaways from Super Bowl ads to apply to marketing (access required)

Super Bowl ads deliver on a few recurring themes every year, and this year was no different. Whether it’s nostalgia ...

I Bonds: A rare bright spot for the income investor (access required)

Investors have a natural affinity for income-producing investments. A steady stream of investment income is comforting even if it is ...

What AG report on ‘credential stuffing’ hacks mean for your business (access required)

In January, New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report summarizing the findings of a broad investigation into so-called ...

Data privacy and security concerns with rise of online betting, gaming (access required)

As of January 8, 2022, New York State joined the ranks of more than a dozen states that have legalized ...

Potential headwinds are coming — what this means for your business (access required)

An abundance of liquidity and market exuberance in the world’s recovery from COVID-19 have made this a promising time for ...

Rochester’s Roland Williams hoping his Rams do it again

Eric Weddle is one of those feel-good stories that Rochester tight-end-turned-broadcaster Roland Williams has followed closely in recent weeks. Late ...

FLLT acquires Bell Station property along Cayuga Lake  (access required)

The Finger Lakes Land Trust has purchased the 480-acre Bell Station property, featuring 3,400 feet of pristine Cayuga Lake shoreline, ...

G.W. Lisk company selected as supplier for NASA project   (access required)

Island Components Group, a G.W. Lisk company, has been selected as a supplier for NASA’s Mars Sample Return program.  Island ...

When business gets slow it’s time to train your staff (access required)

By the time April 2020 came around, we found ourselves at Flower City Communications as perplexed as every other business. ...