Freestyle skier's slippery slope to Olympics

Freestyle skier Torin Yater-Wallace has a simple picture in his mind: his family in South Korea for the Winter Olympics and watching him compete in the halfpipe.
Freestyle skier's slippery slope to Olympics

Halfpipe skier Torin Yater-Wallace poses for a portrait at the U.S. team media summit in Park City, Utah. He figures to be a medal contender in South Korea. 

Freestyle skier Torin Yater-Wallace has a simple picture in his mind: his family in South Korea for the Winter Olympics and watching him compete in the halfpipe.

His journey there has been much more complicated.

The family has been through so much over the years‚ from dad serving time for a white-collar crime to mom dealing with colon cancer and, the scariest twist of all — Yater-Wallace spent 10 days in a medically induced paralysis state in November 2015 while fighting a life-threatening infection.

There have been broken ribs, moves from house to house in Aspen, Colorado, time the family spent on food stamps, all in the name of advancing a career that Yater-Wallace hoped might end up at the Winter X Games or Olympics.

“A lot of it sucked and a lot of it was some of the worst things to ever deal with and I couldn’t help but think, ‘Why again? Why me? Why another annoyance that comes up?’” said Yater-Wallace , who remains in the hunt after David Wise secured one of the up to four Olympic spots with a victory in a ski halfpipe qualifier. “But I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I’m just so happy to have all my family in good health and back home.”

The 22-year-old offered an unflinching window into his travails in a documentary titled “Back to Life.” Written and directed by skier Clayton Vila, the film focuses on Yater-Wallace through his time in a Salt Lake City hospital fighting illness to coming back to win the 2016 Europe Winter X Games gold in Oslo, Norway. 

“I’m not trying to make anyone shed a tear and feel bad for the things I’ve gone through,” Yater-Wallace said. “I just want people to know there is light at the end of the tunnel‚ even if it’s a really, really long tunnel.”

His mom and dad were skiers. He was on skis in the backyard as a toddler and was having lessons as a 2-year-old.

Ronald Wallace ran a business that specialized in collectible wines. Prosecutors said he promised wine futures to his clients but rarely delivered. He was sentenced to five years of probation, two years of home confinement and ordered to pay millions in restitution in February 2007. He ended up serving time in federal prison. He was released in December 2015.

To make ends meet, Yater-Wallace, his mom and his sister lived on food stamps for a bit and moved 10 times in a two-year span, including into the attic above a friend’s garage. His mom worked multiple jobs so he could ski.

“We thought we were going to have to leave town,” his mom, Stace, said. “I could tell it would pretty much kill him.”

Soon after a sponsorship deal from Armada skis, Yater-Wallace finished well at a Dew Tour stop. Later, along came a deal with Target and an invitation into the field at the 2011 Winter X Games, where as a 15-year-old he came second.

“From there, our lives were completely turned around,” said Yater-Wallace, whose grandfather is Renny Yater, founder of Yater surfboards in Santa Barbara, California. “Everything changed overnight, from barely affording rent to chasing a dream of being a pro skier.”

He was considered a medal favorite in halfpipe skiing, which made its Olympic debut in Sochi. But shortly before the Games, he broke his ribs in a crash. He healed in time, made the team but because of the injury, he didn’t stand much of a chance. He finished 26th.

Freestyle skier's slippery slope to Olympics

In spite of a number of obstacles in his life the past few years, Yater-Wallace is on the precipice of making another Olympic team.

It still felt like a gold-medal moment because his mom was there. Leading up to the Olympics, she went through multiple surgeries for colon cancer, which claimed Yater-Wallace’s grandmother.

“It was just horrible and a scary thought to know the person that helped me get through life in every single aspect could possibly not be there,” Yater-Wallace said. “To see her recover in full and ultimately make it to Russia, it was straight out of a movie.”

His recovery was remarkable, too.

In November 2015, Yater-Wallace thought he had a cold he just couldn’t kick. He went to see several doctors and they all said the same thing‚ flu. Only, he kept getting sicker and sicker.

On his third trip to the emergency room and in severe pain, he was flown to Salt Lake City. Turns out, he had a bacterial strain that caused an abscess within his liver and attacked his gall bladder. It also was forcing his organs to shut down and his lungs to fill up with fluid.

The doctors put him into a medically induced state of paralysis to help him recover. Once he was alert, the work began. He lost 30 pounds in that time and “every single possible muscle fiber,” he said. For the next few weeks, he had a tube going into his liver to drain the abscess and another into his gall bladder.

In early January 2016, Yater-Wallace was cleared to ski again. It was nothing fancy‚ but one of the most memorable runs of his life.

“I can’t even explain the feeling of how amazing it was to have that freedom of being outside on top of a mountain after being contained in those sterile walls of a hospital,” Yater-Wallace said.

He felt good enough to get into the mix at the Winter X Games two weeks later. He finished fifth, with his dad watching. A month after that, Yater-Wallace won in Oslo.

“Most amazing feeling,” he said.

Healthy again, Yater-Wallace figures to be a medal contender in South Korea. His mom, dad and sister will be there.

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