Team USA Mogul Skier Tess Johnson Turned to 'Ratatouille' After Losing Her Shot at Beijing Olympics

In a personal essay for PEOPLE, Team USA mogul skier Tess Johnson opens up about heading to Beijing as an alternate following the "best competitive season of my career"

Tess Johnson of Team United States looks on after her run in the Women's Mogul Finals during the Intermountain Healthcare Freestyle International Ski World Cup at Deer Valley Resort on January 14, 2022 in Park City, Utah.
Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty

In this personal essay for PEOPLE, Team USA women's mogul skier Tess Johnson, who made her Olympic debut at age 17 in 2018, opens up about the heartbreak of going to the Winter Games following the "best competitive season of my career."

On Jan. 17, 2022, the movie Ratatouille was almost ruined for me.

I was sitting in a hotel room in Deer Valley, Utah, isolated from the world so as not to get COVID, waiting to hear if I would be going to the Beijing Olympics.

I was feeling pretty confident in my chances of earning the fourth and final spot on the team. I'm currently ranked 5th overall in the world for women's freestyle mogul skiing and I have two medals from this year's Olympic qualifiers (more than any of my teammates). I'm also ranked 4th overall on the Federation of International Skiing's (FIS) Olympic Allocation List (1st American), and I'm a 2018 Olympian.

It's no secret that our U.S. women's moguls team is the best in the world, and I had faith that my outstanding results from the current year would speak for themselves. I'd virtually reinvented myself as a skier over the past two years and thrived under the pressure of the excruciating Olympic qualification process, which had only been exacerbated by the omicron variant. My Olympic dreams were now in the hands of a selection committee, appointed by the U.S. ski team, meeting that day.

Tess Johnson
Sebastien Berthiaume

So, I put on my favorite Pixar movie to ease the massive pit in my stomach. It was the scene when Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole) learns Gusteau's is making a comeback. I've seen this movie a dozen times, but I noticed for the first time that Anton's office is shaped like a coffin. "Figures," I thought.

And just as the haunting critic spits his wine everywhere, enraged by Gusteau's growing popularity, our head coach's caller ID appeared on my phone.

I now refer to this incident as "the call." I could instantly tell from the tone of his voice that it wasn't good news. He proceeded to tell me that the committee had decided to simply go down the FIS base points list to decide the fourth spot.

"Why are there so many different lists?" you may ask. My guess is as good as yours. Regardless, the FIS base points list is an accumulation of competitive results over the past three years, and because I am a proud member of the best women's mogul team in the world stacked with Olympic medal contenders, I am the fifth ranked American on that list. Therefore, as our head coach phrased it, "You're the first one out."

I started crying, hard. After the shockingly impersonal call ended, I began wailing long, ugly cries. My body was trembling from how convulsive my sobs became, and I remember thinking, "This is how people sound when someone they love dies." Although I did not lose someone I love that day, I lost my Olympic dream, which meant everything to me. I would come to feel many emotions over the next three weeks: betrayal, anger, depression, hope, love, gratitude, grief. But in that moment, all I felt was pain, pulsing up and down my body as if I'd just been stabbed in the heart. My life for the past 12 years, up until "the call," suddenly felt pointless. And in that moment, I can honestly say that I wanted to die.

I realize this seems like a pretty depressing story — and well, yes, it kind of is — but bear with me, because I do eventually finish watching Ratatouille.

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The next two hours after I received the news, I was alone. I struggled to get ahold of most staff members on my team, and at that moment I felt virtually abandoned. My lovely boyfriend, also a Team USA mogul skier, got there as quickly as he could, antigen-testing before even coming into my room. That felt pretty pointless, but we held each other tightly, as he too was beginning to grieve his own Olympic dreams.

The next morning, I made a social media post explaining the complex situation as best I could, sticking up for myself, and speaking my truth. The response was overwhelming. Easily over 500 messages of love, support, anger, and confusion on my behalf flooded my profile. While they did lift my spirits, I couldn't help but think of my teammates who did qualify. Would all this public opinion ruin their Olympic experience? Do they now feel undeserving of the spots they earned? Did I cause that pain? Anxiety is a funny thing, because I still don't really know the answers to these questions.

Our team is my second family. When I first made the U.S. ski team at age 14, it was a highly individualized, toxically competitive environment. Genuine support was rare, and it didn't seem like we truly cared about one another. Even at that young age, I knew it was something that needed to change. And so we changed. Over the past six years, I've worked hard to be a part of instilling kindness and respect for one another on our team. I will always stand by my values of being the best teammate I can be, because it's more important to be a person than a competitor.

But navigating the rickety bridge between being a true teammate and a fierce competitor has been one of the greatest challenges of my career, especially during the cutthroat Olympic qualification process. Imagine competing against your very best friends, the people who have helped shape who you are as a person and a skier, for your biggest dream in life. So, as I read the hundreds of messages from people who have my back, I felt like my second family was suddenly in jeopardy. Will standing up for myself cost me my second family? I still wonder.

Tess Johnson
FIS Freestyle

I spent several days pursuing an appeals process, which my warrior parents (who have been my rock) eventually convinced me to drop. My mom said, "It's time to start healing." She was right. And my healing process actually begins today, Feb. 3, 2022, as I watch the Beijing mogul skiing Olympians compete from my isolation in a Chinese hotel room.

After I dropped the appeal, I accepted the opportunity to travel to Beijing as the first alternate. I spent the next ten days isolated in a studio apartment in Utah with my boyfriend, where at one point, I was too depressed to imagine surviving a week in a Chinese hotel room completely alone.

I avoided skiing because I was scared I'd hate it, even though I knew I should be training to be as prepared as possible if an opportunity to compete did arise. It feels lame to say that when I mustered up the courage to just get on skis, it felt like a monumental step toward feeling better. It was a relief to know I still love to ski.

I got a little better every day and on Jan. 29, I flew to Beijing alone. I fake smiled as I explained to a few people in the airport I was going as an alternate, that word tasting sour in my mouth. Then, I put on my noise-cancelling headphones for the rest of the 35-hour travel day and tried my best to be invisible.

Getting to China felt like entering an escape room: COVID tests, customs forms, health QR codes, checkpoints, and hazmat suits galore. The first day I was there, I got food poisoning, and I remember thinking as I cried on the bathroom floor, feeling utterly depleted, that this would be one of the lower points in my life, right down there with "the call." It feels strange to be having the lowest moments of my life during the best competitive season of my career. Either way, nothing says "Welcome to China" like some good old food poisoning.

Tess Johnson hugging teammate and longtime friend Olivia Giaccio after she had officially qualified for the Olympic Games on January 14, 2022.

I was well taken care of by the USA staff here (albeit COVID-style), and since then I've been exclusively eating ramen, oatmeal, freeze dried meals, and snacks, all brought from home. I've been watching copious amounts of Netflix, playing my ukulele and talking to my sports psychologist every day because I can't leave my hotel — literally, I can't leave the building at all because my credential isn't active.

An opportunity to compete almost arose yesterday, and my dream was momentarily revived, but alas, today is bittersweet: There is no hope left for my 2022 Olympic dreams, and I can finally start to grieve and heal.

So, that brings us back to Ratatouille. As I began to write this at 3:30 a.m. due to a crippling combination of jet lag and anxiety, I realized I never finished the movie. Although I seriously hesitated finishing it, so as not to put myself back in the darkness of that Deer Valley hotel room, I rewound to the beginning and pressed play.

RELATED VIDEO: Skier Mikaela Shiffrin Sometimes Sings a Classic Children's Song in Her Head While Competing

When Anton Ego appeared again, it made me giggle to imagine the selection committee, who determined my Olympic fate, as a bunch of Anton Egos. But the part that stuck out to me the most, having now gone through all of this, is when Remy (Patton Oswalt) is about to steal a piece of bread in Paris. He opens his mouth to take a bite, and imaginary Gusteau (Brad Garrett) becomes the bread and convinces him not to be a thief, no matter how hungry he is. "Food will come, Remy. Food always comes to those who love to cook," Gusteau tells him.

As I overanalyzed this work of animated art, I thought to myself, "I don't love to cook, but I do love to ski." Despite my fears of losing that love, along with my already lost dreams for 2022, I think food will come eventually, for me and my second family. Just like Remy, I've found a lot of strength that I didn't know I had. And although I don't know when or how, I know food will come, because today I can start dreaming my 2026 Olympic gold medal dreams.

Besides, I hear the food is better in Italy.

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit Watch the Winter Olympics, beginning Feb 3, and the Paralympics, beginning March 4, on NBC.

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