Feature | Freestyle Skiing

Kelly Sildaru: Top five things you need to know about the queen of freestyle skiing 

She's only 18-year-old and is already a world champion, but did you know she was first discovered on YouTube?

By Andrew Binner ·

Heroes can be found in the most unlikely places, and so it was that Kelly Sildaru emerged from Estonia as a freestyle skiing legend in the making.

With a very short winter season and mostly flat terrain that is more conducive to cross-country skiing, the teenager’s ascension to the top of the world in her sport has been astonishing.

At just 18 years old, Sildaru is already a five-time Winter X Games champion, world champion and Youth Olympic Games gold medallist.

In 2016, she surpassed Chloe Kim as the youngest athlete to win a Winter X Games title, and in 2017 became the first woman to land a Switch 1260° Mute and a 1440° in competition.

The Tallinn native was considered a strong favorite to podium at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang to win her nation’s first-ever freestyle skiing Olympic medal. However, a torn ACL forced her to miss the entire 2018 season.

But she returned with a bang in 2019, taking out three medals in 26 hours at the X Games in the slopestyle, big air and superpipe.

As the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics looms ever closer, Sildaru is being spoken about as a favourite to medal once more. But how well do you know Estonia’s new national treasure?

Women's Freeski Slopestyle - Highlights | Winter Youth Olympic Games 2020

Kelly Sildaru (EST) scored a total of 93.75 to claim the first Gold of the ...

1 - Discovered on YouTube

With no professional sporting genes to speak of, Sildaru started freestyle skiing aged 5 with her father Tonis, who bought some freestyle skis for fun.

She was a natural, and it wasn’t long before she rose to viral fame in Estonia through posting freestyle skiing videos on YouTube as a nine-year-old in 2012.

Her large following led to sponsorships with some of the world’s biggest brands and invitations to competitions.

Today, the freestyle prodigy comfortably Estonia’s most famous athlete with over 80k Instagram followers and 20K YouTube subscribers.

Sildaru’s younger brother Henry is also a talented freestyle skier, appears in videos with his sister, and the siblings are inseparable at international events.

2 - The secret to success

Kelly Sildaru is unrivalled at rails skiing on the women’s circuit because, with a longest slope length of just 1.8km in Estonia, she was forced to first cut her teeth on small jumps and rails instead.

She would then have to travel to the Alps to get experience in bigger competitions. 

“Kelly never had home field advantage, but she never had the disadvantage of knowing a home mountain so well,” former pro freestyle skier Jen Hudak told Forbes.

With such a short season of snow in Estonia, Sildaru spent a considerable chunk of her training time perfecting her skills on the trampoline.

Kelly Sildaru (centre) in first place celebrates after winning halfpipe gold at the 2019 World Championships in Utah

3 - Struggling with new-found celebrity

It wasn’t long before ‘Kelly-mania’ set in, and Sildaru overtook tennis player Kaia Kanepi as Estonia’s most famous athlete.

At every freestyle skiing event Estonian flags could be seen fluttering, but for a young teenager, the attention could sometimes be too much to handle.

It’s really nice to have your country supporting you, but sometimes it can be hard if people know you well and recognise you on the street,” Sildaru said. 

“In the beginning, I didn’t like it at all. But I’m really used to it by now. Sometimes I’m out with my friends and they’re like, ‘Do you see how they’re looking at you?” and I don’t even notice it.”

Sildaru’s 2017 achievements, which saw her collect more X Games medals and enter her first World Cup competitions, even earned social media praise from former Estonian prime minister Taavi Rõivas:

4 - Her winning dance

Despite the pressures of fame and sponsorship weighing on her young shoulders, Sildaru has clearly never lost the enjoyment of competing.

On top of her unbelievable achievements, she endeared herself further with freestyle skiing fans with her excellent victory dance at an X Games event.

The Egyptian Pharaoh-style dance was an instant hit, and unsurprisingly went viral.

Take a look at Sildaru's moves here.

Kelly Sildaru always competes with a smile on her face.

5 - A keen reader

Despite spending so much time honing her craft, Sildaru is so much more than just a freestyle skier.

As a teenager, she juggles her time in season between shredding hard and studying too. If she deviates from her studies, father Tonis - who quit his job in 2015 to travel the world to competitions with his children - is always on hand to ensure the books don’t get ignored!

Sildaru even takes pleasure in helping her younger brother Henry with his studies.

Her favorite book is R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, while off season activities consist of golf, disc golf, and surfing - as Estonia may lack mountains, but has plenty of coastline!