Up, up and away: Julia Marino's lifelong fearlessness catapults her to Olympics
Julia Marino and gravity were never really a great pair. To her, everything was a launching pad - furniture, household objects, playground equipment. "She was always on the lookout for something to jump off of," her father, John Marino, said.
It resulted, ultimately, in a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the 20-year-old Westport, Conn. native, but there was no way to know that then. When she was younger, it was often a cause for alarm - or at least raised eyebrows. Like when she was 11 months old and insisted on climbing up the playground slide backward. Or when she was 2 1/2 years old and banging a wrench against her bicycle, trying to remove the training wheels. Or that first day of kindergarten when the principal called to say the energetic, young girl had somehow scaled a wall.
"The principal said, 'We don't know how she did it, and we don't think adults could do it. But if you could just please tell her not to do that again, we'd appreciate it,'" her father recalled.
Turns out, it was all early training for a meteoric snowboarding career and what could be a memorable Pyeongchang Games. Marino is from Westport, Connecticut, and began seriously snowboarding six years ago. But she suddenly finds herself as a medal threat in two Olympic events - slopestyle and big air - having enjoyed perhaps the quickest rise of any Olympian on the U.S. roster.
Slopestyle is a snowboarder's playground, an obstacle course that calls on competitors to do a series of tricks off different elements. Big air, which is making its Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, requires riders to perform a single mind-numbing trick, starting atop a 160-foot ramp and launching off a hill angled 40 degrees. It's not for the faint of heart.
"It's nerve-wracking," Elaine Marino says of her daughter's perilous pursuits. "I know it's a risky sport. I remember at USA Nationals watching her compete. We went from the East Coast where everything is smaller. But then we get out there, and there's all these huge features. She went flying over the first jump, and I remember my knees actually got weak. A man next to me grabbed me and said, 'Are you okay?'"
The Marinos are still getting accustomed to all this. Just a couple of years ago, their daughter's name was barely a distant, faint dot on the Pyeongchang radar. Marino started skiing at 3 1/2 on the family's annual winter vacations to Beaver Creek, Colorado. When she was around 12, she broke a ski on the mountain and rather than rent new skis, her father insisted Marino use a snowboard that was already available.
"She grumbled and wasn't too happy about it," John said.
"After a couple of days, I really began to enjoy it, though," she recalled.
By 14, she was attending Stratton Mountain School, a Vermont boarding school for skiers and snowboarders, and at 15, she was living and training full-time in Colorado, taking high school classes online.
Still, Marino was young in the sport, mostly snowboarding in amateur and local competitions. She entered her first World Prix event through a backdoor. Boston's Fenway Park hosted a big air event in 2016, barely 2 1/2 hours from the family's Connecticut home. An 18-year-old Marino entered but was only an alternate. When an injury to a teammate opened up a spot, Marino not only competed in the event, she stunned the field by winning the whole thing.
Less than two years later, she's a podium favorite in every event she enters. At last year's X Games Aspen, she won gold in slopestyle and bronze in big air, and then at X Games Oslo, she won silver in big air and bronze in slopestyle. Just last week she took silver in slopestyle at X Games Aspen, finishing second to Jamie Anderson, the 2014 Olympic champion.
"Julia is absolutely amazing," Anderson, 27, says of Marino. ". . . I really like her. She reminds me a lot of my younger self. She's a really free spirit, loves to be outside, walks around bare-foot. And she's only getting better. It's so fun to watch her compete. She's so strong mentally and physically. I think she's going to be a huge name in women's snowboarding for years to come."
Anderson surely will be a favorite in both slopestyle and big air at the Pyeongchang Games but will have to fend off a pair of younger teammates - both Marino and 17-year-old Hailey Langland, who won gold in big air at last year's X Games.
"There are some athletes who take a longer time to develop into that elite level, but, for sure, there's something about that youth and fearlessness," says Mike Jankowski, the U.S. Freeskiing and Snowboarding coach. "It lends itself well to progression and being able to push yourself out here on the mountain."
Marino has distinguished herself from the slopestyle field with her consistency in executing double flips. In fact, at age 18, she was the first female rider to land a double in competition - and she managed to land two on the same run.
"The thing that I've always wanted to do is kind of push my limits," Marino says, "and see where I can go and see how strong I can be and, you know, what's the biggest spin I can throw?"
With a chance to become the first female snowboarder to win two gold medals, Marino surely will attract plenty of eyes in Pyeongchang - even if some of them are squinting.
Elaine Marino has been watching her daughter take big leaps since she started walking and by now knows that she usually lands on her feet.
"There are still times that I'm standing behind [my husband] with my head in his back because I can't watch," she said with a laugh, "but I know it's such a special talent that she has."