PARK CITY, Utah — Remote school isn’t anything new to Kaila Kuhn.
One day her classroom is her dorm at Utah Olympic Park; the other it’s a hotel room in Finland preparing to compete with the U.S. freestyle aerials team on the FIS World Cup tour.
Boyne City remains her home base, no matter what time zone she is in, and her allegiance remains with Boyne City High School. Only thing is, you won’t find this Rambler senior taking a career-best fourth in the world on Boyne’s iconic Ramblertron.
Try the 2022 Winter Olympics.
“Last year, I was coming into everything as a rookie,” Kuhn said. “I didn’t know how hard the jet lag would hit me, I didn’t know how different the food would be. All of those different things you have to get used to in order to prepare yourself to have a good competition. This year, I was much more prepared.”
Kuhn grew up a gymnast at Boyne Area Gymnastics and was on skis at Boyne Mountain at 18 months-old.
Her family had a mutual friend with Dawn Estelle, mother of now-teammate Winter Vinecki, who knew Kuhn and thought her skill set would work perfectly for aerials.
“They thought it would be a good idea to come out to Utah and do a tryout camp there for a week,” Kuhn said. “I headed out to Utah when I was 12 and I did a week long camp there to test it out. I really loved it.”
The following year she attended a second tryout camp at Team USA’s Lake Placid Olympic Training Center in New York, and was eventually offered a spot in its Elite Aerial Development Program.
Essentially the equivalent of a Division I scholarship, the EADP included subsidized coaching fees and room and board at Lake Placid. Kuhn accepted the offer, moving away from home at 13 and training there for a year and a half before moving out to Utah and being offered a spot on the national team at 16.
Her first roommate in Park City was none other than Vinecki.
“We actually didn’t know each other growing up,” Kuhn said. “We met once I started aerials.”
At first she said it was hard. Kuhn missed home and thought she’d also miss the typical high school experiences, dances, and friends most live for at that age.
“I thought about it a lot more when I first moved away because I was really worried about that,” Kuhn said. “I quickly realized just after getting a taste of this journey of mine I’m getting experiences almost nobody my age gets.”
Truth be told.
At 18 years old, Kuhn’s currently the youngest athlete in U.S. aerials team. The high school senior travels the globe and competes against people in the World Cup at times 10 to 15 years older than her.
But she’s right with them.
She has the chance to work out at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard’s Center for Excellence where it’s common to run into Olympic alumni like Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety.
There’s also a good chance Kuhn might be the next.
On the 2019-20 World Cup tour last winter Kuhn finished in the top-10 six times, adding second place finish in the U.S. National Championships in Bristol, Connecticut. The first weekend of December she led the U.S. on the first event of the FIS World Cup in Finland with a career-best fourth place finish, missing Bronze by three-hundredths of a point.
The 2022 U.S. Olympic Trials for a chance to head to Beijing are a year from January. Points acquired through the FIS World Cup can also contribute to Olympic consideration. There are three spots on the USOC’s Aerials team; Kuhn and Vinecki finished with the two best scores in Finland.
“Now is the time where it really starts to feel real,” Kuhn said. “I try not to look too far ahead. I really just want to focus on one competition at a time and do my best at each one of those before I get too excited about the Olympics.”
USSA Aerials Coach Vladimir Lebedev thinks Kuhn has a chance not only at 2022, but maybe even the next four Olympic cycles because of her age. Milan hosts the 2026 games, and Salt Lake City has pondered bids for either 2030 or 2034.
Lebedev said if Kuhn can consistently perform and land nice jumps, she’ll regularly see herself in the World Cup finals and super finals.
“I see how she’s growing as a professional athlete, she’s still learning,” Lebedev said. “Her technique is good and her performance looks alright ... She’s a super hard worker and I do believe in a couple of years she will be one of the strongest athletes in the world.”
Even through the team travels with stringent COVID-19 protocols to put them on the stage of a professional sports team — masks on the plane, multiple tests, and a quarantine protocol that only really allows them to leave the hotel for the grocery store — athletes on the U.S. ski team are not paid.
The team receives no funding from the federal government unlike most of their competitors. Instead, it relies on donations and sponsorship deals through companies like Spyder, Xfinity, GoPro and Land Rover. Some have personal trainers and sponsorship deals of their own, some even have jobs.
“We’re all really surprised that all of the countries are working together to make really safe protocols,” Kuhn said. “We’re able to compete this year and everything is still a little bit up in the air, but we’re taking it one competition at a time.”
After a few weeks of training, Kuhn and Vinecki are set to return to U.S. Nationals on Jan. 9. The teams then heads to Russia for a World Cup event Jan. 16.
World Cup events are being made available to stream on NBC’s Peacock Premium. For $4.99 per month, the same streaming service carries the English Premier League.