It is late December, just before Christmas, and Taylah O’Neill has just completed the first of a series of three World Cup Mogul events in the lead up to an Olympic Games for which she is so close to qualifying, yet just as near to the heartbreak of missing a second – and final – Olympics at Beijing 2022.

“We had one in Ruka, Finland, one in Sweden and we just finished up one (here) in France,” O’Neill said in December from the Central French Alps. “To qualify for the Games, you need to be within the top 30 in the world to be able to go and, at the moment, I’m in the top 30 from the events we’ve had so far, so looking good at the moment.

“(Just need to) keep going with how I’ve been doing, and hopefully do a little bit better as well in the last four events leading into the Games.”

Her last event is January 20, two weeks out from Beijing.

O’Neill, a former Ben Lexcen Scholar and UNSW Sporting Blue, made her Olympic debut as a 19-year-old at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, finishing 16th, and since then – like so many athletes before and since – has endured more than her fair share of injuries, defining her journey on and off the slopes.

The now 27-year-old first tore the ACL on her right knee – a complete rupture – just after Sochi in 2014, the same time she started her Bachelor of Media degree at UNSW, majoring in Public Relations and Advertising.

“August 2014 is when I did my first ACL, so it was really good I had uni. I could actually enroll full-time at the start of 2015,” O’Neill said, who was named UNSW’s 2014 Female Athlete of the Year.

“It was a good distraction from being injured. I could just go to uni every day, do my studies, tick off some more subjects which was great because a lot of the time we had to reduce to part time (because of competition and training as an elite athlete).”

“(The UNSW Elite Athlete Program) was really, really helpful to get through all of those courses that I needed to do and to tick them off in a timely manner.

"If I was away overseas or in Jindabyne, in the Snowy Mountains, (UNSW Elite Athlete Program Manager, Helen Bryson) was only an email away. It was always really helpful to have her there to help. Just those little extra stressors like extensions. 

“A lot of my other teammates, they take 10 years to finish their degree, luckily I was able to finish mine in five.”

A combination of performance and injury prevented a second Games in Pyeongchang, at the start of 2018.

And O’Neill was determined not to let that happen again.

She “trained really hard, got back in the gym, back on the snow”, qualifying for the 2019 World Championships, in the USA, where she finished 13th during which she had also completed her studies by November 2018.

Then a 2019 crash at Perisher Ski Resort – where Taylah fell in love with skiing and does all her training when in Australia – prompted more surgery.

“I had a crash at Perisher, in Jindabyne, during our season and my physios thought I had just torn my (medial collateral ligament), because my (anterior cruciate ligament) was always kind of loose after my surgery. It never really felt tight,” she said.

“I was reassured it was normal, we rehabbed (the MCL) for three weeks, went back overseas to Switzerland to a resort called Zermatt.

“I would hit a bump, and something would go in my (right) knee. It was so painful; I wouldn’t be able to breathe I was in so much pain. That happened twice.

“They sent me back home, got an MRI and it turned out I’d partially torn my ACL for the second time.

It turned out the first ACL repair five years prior had never held.

“When they looked at the imaging, they realized it had been tearing for numerous years and the last crash was that last little bit that really ticked it off and it needed surgery again.

“From 2014 right through, I had pain, the whole time. I would always have pain when skiing but never really knew why.”

Some pain in her right quadricep then triggered more scans in 2020 when cartilage damage was found between the femur and patella.

“I had quite extensive bone bruising in that area.”

“I wasn’t allowed to go overseas (in 2020), I had to have eight weeks off, then pretty much restart the rehab process again”.

While injury had the potential to derail the Olympic dream, it hasn’t, and conversely provided a rare opportunity.

“From a young age, my coach always told us, you need to prepare for life after sport… moguls skiing is not a money-making sport,” O’Neill said.

“You need to prepare for when you retire.

“While it was unfortunate, I got injured so often, in the scheme of things it was kind of good for my other part of life (where) I could go and do my internships, be in the real world and get that experience for my future, post-skiing life.

“Compared to other sports we do retire quite young. I’m 27 now, and most people retire around my age if not younger, so I'm always reminded to keep that valued and important (life away from skiing).

O’Neill has used that injury frustration to take up internship opportunities with the Australian Olympic Committee and PR agency ‘History Will Be Kind’, in Sydney, and was lucky enough to secure a role with the AOC for last year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics.

“You’re not just stuck in the moguls skiing world, you have other things to go to … it kind of balances me out,” she said.

“You have more of a whole perspective on everything.

“(I’m) just trying to continue learning in the PR industry, while I’ve been skiing, because it was quite a big gap from 2018 to 2022. Next year I will retire from skiing after the Games."

That word retirement is something that is both terrifying and exciting for someone who has dedicated her life to moguls skiing.

“I’ve been a moguls skier since I was eight-years-old, so you know, 20 years of my life pretty much I’ve been a moguls skier and an athlete,” O’Neill said.

“So, it’s a little scary to think about hanging up the boots and joining real life, but at the same time, I’m pretty excited to get into work and use my degree and just enjoy real life really.

“Be at home for longer than two weeks at a time … I’m nervous and excited, it’s kind of a mixture of feelings.

“At the moment, I’m just focused on the next month and a half, get through to the (Olympic Games in Beijing), compete well and hopefully achieve some personal bests and make some good memories to finish off my career,” O'Neill said prior to Christmas.

And now with the benefit of her degree, the support provided by the Elite Athlete Program, and hopefully a second Games, O’Neill is better prepared for that next step.

“(I've) learned that I’m able to do more than just one thing,” she said.

“It’s definitely helped me be able to multi-task, juggle different things, get things done.

"Prioritise tasks and just tick things off when you need to because it’s something I’ve had to do my whole life.”

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics start February 4.

Taylah O'Neill, December 2021 (Credit, Taylah O'Neill Elite Athlete Facebook page)

Taylah O'Neill with fellow Australian moguls skier Britteny Cox, December 2021. (Credit, Taylah O'Neill Elite Athlete Facebook page).