Ski halfpipe, the ski version of the event that made Shaun White a household name, makes its Olympic debut in Sochi on Feb. 18 (qualification and the final stream live on NBCOlympics.com at 8:45 a.m. ET and 12:30 p.m. ET, respectively, ahead of NBC’s primetime coverage; the women compete Feb. 20).
Torin Yater-Wallace — just one of EW’s Athletes to Watch on Team USA — began skiing in his native Aspen before he was 2 years old. In 2011, at the age of 15, he was the youngest male to ever medal at the Winter X Games. He’s built a nice hardware collection since then, but his road to Russia was rough: He sat out the X Games finals last month to continue recovering from a long December that dealt him a twice-collapsed right lung, two broken ribs, and a total of three-and-a-half weeks in the hospital (including his 18th birthday). “I’ve never gone through that much stuff, especially so much that had to do with the trauma center,” he told EW before heading to Sochi. “With your lungs and your ribs, it’s all so close to your heart, you have to be so closely monitored. It kinda freaked me out, but I’m feeling really good now.” He won a test event in Sochi last year. Who doesn’t love a comeback story?
Ask Yater-Wallace why people should tune in, and his answer is simple: It’s people catching air, the same kind of action you get in snowboard halfpipe with just slightly different looking tricks and grabs. Switch doubles and double corks will be the tricks people are “‘wow’ing about,” he said. The danger is still the same: “You go up the wall that’s 90 degrees, and you go straight up and you have to come down and land perfectly in the transition. If you pop too much — like if you press off of the wall too much when you take off — then you can go up and come down into the flat part and land very flat. Or if you don’t pop enough and you absorb the takeoff, you’ll land on the part that’s called the deck, the flat part of the halfpipe on top. There’s not really a lot of room for error. The deck is a lot scarier than coming up a little short on a jump [on the slopestyle course].”
Look for him to be listening to music while he competes. “If you hear a new song that you’re really into, sometimes you have it on repeat because you like the song so much. I try to find one of those kind of songs before every event — something new that gets me pumped up. Loud, high-energy, hardcore” he said. In the past, he’s opted for Nas, Rick Ross, Lil’ Wayne, and The Game. He listed his headphones and iPod as the essentials he’d be taking to Sochi, along with his Old Spice (“‘Cause I like to smell good”).
Yater-Wallace is one of the athletes taking part in P&G’s “Thank You, Mom” campaign, which honors the sacrifices and support it takes to raise an Olympian. “I think I got the chills, but I didn’t tear up,” he said about watching the commercials. Skiing is an expensive sport, with equipment and travel to resorts around the country. “When I was younger, my mom loved how much I loved the sport I was doing. The way sponsors work when you’re a younger kid is you send in a ‘sponsor me’ video of you skiing and a résumé. My mom would help me write it all out, help me make the video when I was, like, 10 years old trying to get my first sponsors,” he said. “She was just always doing every single thing to help me out. There’s no way I could ever be at the level I am in my sport without the support of my mom. Now that it’s worked out, it’s just the most amazing thing. Now that I’ve made it to the professional level, I can pay for my own stuff and I can give back to my mom and help out.”
Here, from U.S. Freeskiing halfpipe coach Andy Woods’ Instagram, is a peek at how the competition might look in Sochi if the fog doesn’t clear up.
Other Americans in the event include Aaron Blunck, Lyman Currier, and David Wise, the latter of whom three-peated at the Aspen X Games last month. Check out his winning run below.