Like every skier on the U.S. Ski Team, Jay Panther is hoping to earn a spot on the Olympic team for a shot at gold in Sochi this winter. Unlike anyone else on the ski team, Panther is from Kentucky, spent a year training at the Snowflex slope at Liberty University in Virginia, and is 29 years old—retirement age for most pro skiers. And yet, Panther is a favorite to land one of only three spots on the U.S. Freestyle Mogul Team. We talked with the Kentuckian after a water jump session at the Utah Olympic Park about growing up in the South, his shot at the Olympics, and skiing on plastic snow.
BRO: So you spent the summer hanging out in the pool?
Panther: Yeah. Freestyle moguls is a combo of ski turns and air. Every trick has a degree of difficulty to it, and a lot of the overall impression comes from air, so we spend a lot of time working on our tricks on water ramps. I spent this summer training at the Utah Olympic Park. It’s a ski jump covered in plastic grass, the Snowflex material. You jump into a huge pool with an air compressor that softens the surface before you hit. It allows us to develop tricks with less of a risk of injury. Usually, I spend my summers playing volleyball.
Panther: I’m a two-sport athlete. I play professional sand volleyball from April to September, but I’m taking a full year of ski training leading up to the Olympics.
BRO: Tell us about the Olympic team process.
Panther: The Olympic team is chosen the third week in January. There are six World Cup competitions between November and the Olympics. Those results are used to pick the Olympic team. There are probably three slots for freestyle moguls.
BRO: How is a boy from Kentucky getting a shot at the Olympic ski team?
Panther: I remember lying in bed my senior year in high school, watching Jonny Moseley in the 2002 Olympics. I had butterflies in my stomach watching him compete. A year later, I went to Vanderbilt on a full scholarship to play baseball. During a physical, the doctor discovered that I no longer had a compressed vertebra. My body corrected itself. My first thought was maybe I could go skiing again. Later, I asked my dad what he thought of me leaving school and baseball to pursue skiing, and he told me to go for it. My fourth season back I made the U.S. Development team, then I was skiing World Cup events a year later.
BRO: The compressed vertebra wasn’t your only serious injury. Didn’t you also suffer a brain injury recently?
Panther: I suffered a really bad concussion in the fall of 2011 while training at Liberty University. I spent the next six weeks on the couch on total bed rest. I ended up winning the U.S. Team selection events that season and earned World Cup starts, but at the second World Cup, I was dizzy. My dreams were at my fingertips, but I knew my head wasn’t well. I ended up dealing with concussion symptoms for eight months. I played volleyball that season basically dizzy. My brain was well, but my injury was so severe, my body hadn’t rewired itself. For a year, my job was to rehab. It was tough. Cognitively, I wasn’t the same person. I was a shell of myself. My memory was gone. I couldn’t make new memories.
BRO: And now?
Panther: Now I’m healthier than before my concussion.
BRO: You mentioned Liberty. What was it like training at that facility?
Panther: Liberty’s Snowflex is a ton of fun. They sponsored me for a year. Liberty is still the only place in North America with that kind of facility. Most of the pros will still spend their summers in Mount Hood or in Chile, but there are some amazing skiers coming out of that facility.
BRO: Are you the only person on the ski team from Kentucky?
Panther: Definitely. But there are some aerialists from Ohio. There’s a water ramp facility there that produces some good aerialists. The ski team is reaching out all over the country to try to get new athletes into the program, including gymnasts and motocross athletes. I’m sure you’ll see skiers from all over the country on the Olympic team soon.
BRO: You’re 29 years old. How old are the guys you’re competing with?
Panther: Younger. There are kids on the team that are 17 years old. There’s a theory going around that I might be the oldest person ever to make the U.S. ski team. But I feel like I’m 20, so I’m not worried.
BRO: How do you like your chances of making the Olympics?
Panther: I feel like I have an awesome chance. But if you asked the top 50-100 athletes in every sport, they all think they have a great chance. But this is the most training I’ve had ever. I’m healthy. Things are coming together. Now it’s just a matter of putting it down when it counts. I don’t believe in pressure, but there are some high opportunity moments in the next few months.