Torin Yater-Wallace is flying high again
Most skiers know firsthand how things can change in the blink of an eye. On the mountain, a storm can roll in and change a bluebird day into a blizzard in mere minutes. Catching a ski on an unseen branch or rock poking through the snow can send even experienced skiers tumbling down the slope. A trick a halfpipe skier has landed 99 times in a row can lead to broken bones if the 100th attempt isn’t perfect.
Torin Yater-Wallace, a 20-year-old halfpipe skier who splits his time between Park City and Aspen when he’s not traveling for competitions, came into the 2015-16 season hoping to stay healthy after dealing with injuries — including broken ribs and a collapsed lung — the past couple of years.
Unfortunately, everything quickly changed for Yater-Wallace in November when he went to the Park City Medical Center with flu-like symptoms. The diagnosis — Streptococcus anginosus, a rare disease that caused an abscess on his liver and infected his gall bladder.
The fight for life
Yater-Wallace doesn’t remember much about the early stages of his fight against the disease. He was quickly put into a medically-induced coma to allow his body to concentrate on ridding itself of the infection.
"I was flown pretty immediately from the Park City hospital down to the Salt Lake University [of Utah] hospital," he said. "I had a lot of difficulty breathing and I was in aggressive pain. I remember basically arriving down in Salt Lake and then waking up like maybe nine days later."
Upon waking up, though, he realized the battle was just beginning. The next month and a half were filled with medicine and rehab.
"I had like a portable IV drip antibiotics into a central line in me that I walked around with for a month straight — 24/7," he said. "On top of that, I had a tube coming out of my gall bladder and a tube coming out of my liver into drain tubes. The drains were in me for two months."
Yater-Wallace understood the seriousness of the infection and appreciated what doctors and his family and friends did for him during his recovery process.
"You can’t really do much," he said. "You’re in the hands of medicine and doctors. It really was a terrible time in my life, but all things considered, it really makes you appreciate everybody around you and just life in general."
Still, he was anxious to be done with the IV and the drain tubes and get back to doing what he loves to do.
"All I could really think when I was in there was, ‘When can I ski?’" he said. "But that was pretty out of the question for a while. I was definitely itching to ski more than anything, though."
Getting back on snow
Toward the end of his recovery, Yater-Wallace began to work out at the U.S. Ski Team’s Center of Excellence in Park City, where he focused on regaining the weight and strength he lost.
"With a lot of time spent at the COE in Park City and working in the gym there and with the rehab center, it really helped a lot," he said. "I was able to get on the snow a lot quicker."
When he was finally able to click into his skis at Park City Mountain in mid-January, he said he had a new appreciation for the days spent on the mountain.
"Just those first few days on the mountain, being outside in basically my favorite place I could possibly be, it was amazing," he said. "Just to be out there in the winter with the cold air, taking it all in, I was appreciating skiing so much. In the life I live, and with a bunch of my competitors and teammates and friends who also do what I do, you ski so much that sometimes you kind of forget and don’t appreciate how great the life is and how lucky you are to be doing this as a career."
Now back on skis, Yater-Wallace turned his attention to a return to competition. He targeted the X Games in his hometown of Aspen the last weekend of January. He finished fifth, admitting that he probably rushed back a little too soon. But, he said, there wasn’t much that would have kept him from that event.
"I definitely wasn’t able to ski my best, but to be out there and skiing in Aspen, my hometown, was amazing as always," he said. "It holds a big place in my heart. I’ve grown up watching it here at home and have had some of the best days of my life competing there and just skiing there in general with my friends."
He added that he had always hoped he’d be able to compete in Aspen, even when it looked like he might be unable to ski for the rest of the year.
"That was a big goal in my head, whether it was said out loud or not," he said. "It’s a really special event to me."
Going for gold
On Feb. 28, after a couple more weeks of rest, Yater-Wallace was in Oslo for another X Games competition. After qualifying in eighth place, he scored an impressive 91.33 in his first run of the eight-man finals. U.S. teammate Alex Ferreira scored a 93.33 three skiers later, though, putting the pressure on Yater-Wallace to step up his game.
He did just that, scoring a 95.00 on his second run, a score that would last through the third round and earn him a gold medal. Ferreira finished second and fellow U.S. skier Gus Kenworthy completed an American podium sweep.
"I didn’t expect much from this year," Yater-Wallace said. "I was just hoping to be able to ski at all. I wasn’t sure competing was in the picture. [The gold medal] really came out of nowhere and I was thankful to be back skiing at the highest level."
The medal was his seventh X Games superpipe medal (three gold, two silver and two bronze). Winning was nice, he said, but the entire atmosphere of the Oslo X Games made the experience even better.
"I was having a really good time," he said. "The halfpipe was amazing and the weather and the whole community in Norway is really skiing-centric. They’re really big fans of it over there."
Though Yater-Wallace was surprised with his victory, he said he knew in the back of his mind that he was feeling good entering the competition.
"I can’t say I was expecting to win or anything — I never like to say I expect to win," he said. "But when you are at 100 percent and injury-free, you feel confident that you have a chance to do well."
Living a balanced life
Now recovered from the life-threatening infection, Yater-Wallace said he wants to have more balance in his life moving forward. He’ll spend more time with friends and family, who he appreciates now more than ever.
"As much as it was an extremely horrifying and life-threatening sickness, there are a couple good things that came out of it," he said. "I’d say the best thing to come out of it was appreciation for general health and the love of the ones around you."
Though he’s not sure what his plans are for the 2016-17 winter season yet, he’ll focus on balancing competition with his other interests.
"There’s no doubt I’ll still be competing in halfpipe," he said. "But my main thing is balancing more what events I like to do. I’ll sit out on some events if there’s an opportunity to go skiing on a big film project."
Starring in a segment in a ski movie is near the top of Yater-Wallace’s career wish list, he said.
"For a lot of us, a competition result is amazing for that day and the week after," he said. "You’re on cloud nine and buzzing. But, when it comes down to it, if you ask a ski fan or a kid who won this event four years ago, they might not remember. But if you put out an amazing video that you put a lot of work into all season, a lot of these ski segments out there are pretty timeless.
"As somebody who watched a lot of ski movies as a kid, I still watch certain people’s segments that I was a big fan of. That’s a big goal of mine — to put out a really good segment in a movie. To have everybody cheering in the theater when your segment is over is a feeling that’s pretty similar to winning a contest, but in a different, longer-lasting sense."
Yater-Wallace has been doing some filming recently and said he has a video in the works. He’s hoping to have it finished by the end of the year.
"I’ll probably release something online for free this fall," he said.
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Park City dominated East in a sweep on Tuesday night to improve to 3-3 on the season and 3-0 in region play.