BRECKENRIDGE - In May 2009, freeskiing icon Tanner Hall overshot a landing during a film shoot in Washington and blew up his legs in a scene similar to the 2005 jump that left him with two shattered ankles. "I couldn't believe landing there on the hill at Stevens Pass with two broken legs and two blown ACLs. All I could think was 'not again,' " Hall said last week during a break in training for the Dew Tour. "That's all I thought."But even with two shattered tibial plateaus, fractures and two blown ACLs, the most influential freeskier in history had yet to reach his nadir. A year later, Hall's best friend, CR Johnson, died skiing at Squaw Valley. Hall was downing pain pills with deluges of drink, enduring endless surgeries and coming close to burying the most prolific and colorful freeskiing career ever. By his own telling, the 11-time X Games medalist was "zombified, numb to everything, not caring about anything.""I was in the deepest, darkest hole," said the freckled 29-year-old, whose rapid-fire, rolling cadence mirrors his Rastafarian inspiration.Then family and friends intervened, yanking the Kalispell, Mont., skier from the abyss. He quit the pills, tamed the drink and hit the gym. Now - after a four-year absence - he's back competing, taking his time to regain the influential, technical and explosive style that established halfpipe skiing. And he's relishing every moment on the hill."Life is a precious thing and the older you get, the more you realize that," he said. "I took it for granted. I got caught up in it all. ... When you are on top and you are fully confident in yourself and you get so caught up in yourself, the appreciation just goes to waste. It took CR losing his life and me almost losing my legs to take a step back and re-evaluate and say, 'Come on, what kind of person are you?' With this injury, I found out who I am."What he discovered was a nearly extinguished flame. After four years, a more mature Hall has rekindled the raging blaze that fueled the 17-year-old high school dropout to forge pipe skiing with attitude-drenched bravado, inspiring countless skiers to swarm a formerly snowboard-dominated sport.Today he's a founder of Armada Skis, owner of a music production company that roots out up-and-coming reggae dance hall musicians in Kingston, Jamaica, owner of a media production company and co-owner of a backcountry ski lodge in inner British Columbia. He's suddenly the most excited skier in the park and on the hill, celebrating every turn and championing his now younger peers like that teenage ripper who burst onto the scene a dozen years ago. Gone is the surly champion with the gangster pose. But rest assured, the controversial, unruly rankler remains. His return to the pipe has a lot to do with protecting the sport he helped create."I see a lot of people selling out just to get a piece of the Olympics. I want everyone to not forget what we are doing and why we do this and let's keep it real, let's do it our way. Let's not let an organization come in and put its own rules and regulations on what we've created," said Hall, who slings pointed barbs at U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association officials as the group grooms skiers for Olympic compliance. "I have a voice and I'm going to use it."The road to redemption is rough and humbling. Hall could be plundering powder with any ski filmmaker. Focusing on his business interests. Instead, he's launching a comeback, battling kids 12 years younger than him in an increasingly spin-to-win sport. "I missed being in the gate and feeling that nervousness and the hype. It's a feeling a lot of people will never know. I wanted to get that back."At the North Face Park & Pipe Open at Copper Mountain last week and at this weekend's Dew Tour stop at Breckenridge, Hall began his charge, aiming to simply make finals. He kept his spins low - not even unleashing the now mundane 1080 - but boosted mega amplitude above the lip of the 22-foot superpipes. He is hoping he can spark a new approach in the pipe, returning personalized style to tricks that have moved toward raw athleticism, with 1260-degree to 1440-degree spins."There's a whole method to the madness about progressing and bringing the sport to new levels through creativity, through uniqueness," he said. "Now that everybody is so good at skiing, it's like, 'How creative can you be on your skis?'"Hall's one-of-a-kind style keeps his profile high and sponsors happy. Even during his off-the-hill trouble - always with his skis off, such as a 2005 arrest in a Vail bar, a 2008 pot charge in Boulder or blasting downhill ski racing as "easy" - Hall has remained an iconic, buoyant force."There are so many good skiers, but there will never be a Tanner," said Greg Strokes, who as international sports marketing manager at Oakley enlisted a young Hall onto the Oakley team in 2000. "He is passionate and outspoken, and we hold on to athletes like that. He lives and breathes skiing. I knew he was going to come back."Hall's goal is Sochi 2014, where ski pipe and slopestyle will make Olympic debuts. Though he knows that requires bending himself to the International Ski Federation - or FIS - regulations, he won't do it quietly. He's proclaiming the power of marijuana still, even though he recently was included in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency testing pool. A longtime and vocal proponent of grass, Hall has curtailed the puffing to meet FIS rules but remains openly critical. "Drugs are stupid, dude. I know that. Let's keep it natural," he said. "Under the FIS rules, you can drink as much alcohol as you can, take crazy pills with a prescription. But if you happen to set that little tree on fire and smell it, you're out. Think about that. Big up to Washington and Colorado for leading the charge."Quitting marijuana is tough, he said, but he's happy to do it. "It's not that big of a deal, because you know what? At the end of the day, I'm still skiing every day. That's what keeps me happy."
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