Beijing Silver Medalist Jaelin Kauf Reflects on Her Epic Olympic Experience: 'Dream Come True'

"I would not be here without them. The silver medal, we all won it," Jaelin Kauf tells PEOPLE about her family and supporters

Jaelin Kauf
Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty

Jaelin Kauf just returned to the United States in epic fashion: as an Olympic silver medalist.

"I'm so happy to be home. I feel so good," the mogul skier and two-time Olympian, 25, told PEOPLE on Thursday, after her mom Patti surprised her during a Today show appearance — it was the first time since Christmas the athlete had hugged her mom.

"It's a dream come true," Kauf, the hometown hero of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, said of her first-ever Winter Games medal.

Kauf, who failed to medal in PyeongChang in 2018, finished second in the women's moguls final on Sunday, following just behind Australia's Jakara Anthony, who won gold. Russian Olympic Committee's Anastasiia Smirnova took bronze.

Below, Kauf told PEOPLE about her experience in Beijing, from what she was thinking moments before her medal-winning run to the strict COVID protocols in the athletes' village and the memories she will cherish forever.

Jaelin Kauf
Jaelin Kauf. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

PEOPLE: Congratulations on winning silver! How do you feel returning to the States and the fact that you'll forever be known as an Olympic medalist?

Kauf: Obviously I didn't get win that medal on my own. There are so many people — my parents, my brother, so many family and friends and multiple communities — that helped me get to that point and be able to bring a medal home. To share it with them is going to be really special.

PEOPLE: Can you paint a picture of how you felt right before scoring an 80.28 at Genting Snow Park?

Kauf: Up in the start, it was actually a really, really cool moment for me. I listen to "Amazing" by Kanye West every time before I fall in the gate. One of the lines in that song is, "It's amazing, I'm the reason/ Everybody fired up this evening" and that just really resonated with me. Obviously, I picked the song to begin with because it resonated, but those lines at that moment, I mean, I just started grinning because I knew that there were so many people right on the other side of that camera screen back home just supporting me and they were just going to be so happy and proud, no matter what I did that run.

I was just so happy to be able to stand in the gate, just feel the love from back home. I could feel it standing out there and I just had so much fun with it. I was just kind of at ease at that moment.

PEOPLE: When you arrived in Beijing, was the only goal in mind to be on the podium? What was your mentality going into the competition?

Kauf: It was definitely a goal going into it. I knew that I was capable of getting on the podium and I felt like I got to be in a really good mental space going into the Olympics. I think compared to 2018, a lot less pressure. I had a 14 bib or something random on as opposed to last time I was No. 1 with the weight of the world on my shoulders. This time, I just got to go in without that pressure. I didn't feel the expectations of everyone weighing on me.

Once I got there and started training and skiing, I felt so good. I was having so much fun, and I just started off the week of training, so aggressive. Before the competition, I was feeling really good and confident that I was going to be able to end up on the podium.

PEOPLE: Beijing was much different than your first time at the 2018 Games. With COVID changing everything and preventing loved ones from attending, how difficult was that on you?

Kauf: It was definitely a weird experience. Just having to be as safe as possible and keep to our own team. Even our girls' team and guys' team stayed very separate when not at the venue and not having interactions with other teams, even other people on Team USA. But there were still moments when you felt that all of those people were supporting you. Like in passing and talking to those other Team USA members with either "good luck" or congratulatory messages.

It was definitely hard not to be able to have contact besides over the phone with my family for a while leading up to the Games and at the Games. But I definitely stayed in very close communication with them through it all. And I think there are some positives to take away from that. I don't know what it would've been like to have them over there, but being over there by myself, just with my team, I was just able to focus 100 percent on skiing and doing what I needed to. I'm really happy that I could come home so quickly after to celebrate with my family.

PEOPLE: Your family wasn't able to be there, but your boyfriend (fellow American skier Brad Wilson) was at the bottom of the course cheering you on and jumping for joy in celebration of your silver. How crucial was his support in Beijing?

Kauf: It was huge. Not being able to have friends and family, that close support system that I usually have there ... to be able to have one person out of that, going through all of those experiences with me was really nice. This was his third Olympics. So he's very familiar with the Olympics and he helped me get in the best place mentally, giving me confidence and just being like my mentor or role model through the Olympics and what to expect.

PEOPLE: Off the hill, what moments stand out to you?

Kauf: The Opening Ceremony was one of my most amazing experiences from 2018. Right before going out, that camaraderie and energy of Team USA. I was a little skeptical of what that was going to look like this year, but it was still the same. There might not have been as many athletes there, but it was still that same energy, like chanting "U.S.A." before walking out.

PEOPLE: The U.S. women's mogul team members all finished in the top 10. Can you talk about how hard your team worked and how hard you worked?

Kauf: We are so close as a team because we were so reliant on each other. Once we were over in Beijing, it was the four of us girls in one apartment. And we obviously weren't going out and running around doing all the Olympic things that you would do. Instead of having our family to fall back on, it was each other. I think that made us all closer and we were all in the Top 10, we all had really great performances and results from the Olympics.

The other three girls on the team, it was their first Olympics, and to be able to walk away with the sixth, seventh and 10th place at their first Olympics is so incredible. Very few people get to say that. It was really impressive that everyone on the team was able to go out and ski run after run. Every final, put down their run the best that they could. The women's field out there for moguls was very impressive and very competitive. Everyone was stepping it up and pushing it. The speed, the turns and the airs.

PEOPLE: As the two-time Olympic veteran, did you feel like you needed to step up as the leader?

Kauf: I definitely wanted to be there for them the best that I could. They were all in very good places, I think, and didn't really ask too much advice from me. They had other kinds of mentors outside of our team that they were able to get advice about going into the Olympics. But yeah, I was glad that I could be somewhat of a part of their journey and a little bit of a team leader going through the Olympics.

PEOPLE: What would you like to say to your hometown and those who supported you?

Kauf: It was not just me who won the silver medal. There were so many people that the community of Steamboat Springs and Teton Valley, and even the Park City area, who have been a part of this journey and have given me so much love and support. I cannot thank everyone enough for that because I would not be here without them. The silver medal, we all won it.

PEOPLE: What's next for you?

Kauf: Due to COVID and some other things we've had, the World Cups that were scheduled for the end of February, were canceled. So we do have a couple of weeks off before the final two World Cups in March. I just want to free ski and hang out with family and friends.

PEOPLE: Do you want to be back on skis yet? Or do you want to take a little bit of a break and relish the fact that you are an Olympic silver medalist?

Kauf: Yeah, [laughs] I definitely want to take a minute off from mogul skiing, from training and just enjoy it all. But I mean, skiing is something we've always done as a family so I am excited to free ski with the family.

To learn more about Team USA, visit Watch the Winter Olympics, now, and the Paralympics, beginning March 4, on NBC.

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