A freestyle skier’s wrenching journey toward Olympics
January 12, 2018
Freestyle skier Torin Yater-Wallace has a simple picture in his mind: his family all together 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 the 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 crappy thing? Why another damn, annoyance that comes up?'" said Yater-Wallace, who leads the Olympic qualifying process in skier halfpipe. "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 Yater-Wallace offered an unflinching window into his travails in a documentary titled "Back to Life." Written and directed by skier Clayton Vila — and produced by Matthew Brady — the film focuses on Yater-Wallace through his time in a Salt Lake City hospital fighting the illness to coming back months later to win the 2016 Europe Winter X Games gold in Oslo, Norway. It will air Saturday on ABC and streams on Red Bull TV the rest of the month.
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"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 is at the end of the tunnel — even if it's a really, really long tunnel."
His mom and dad were both avid skiers. He was on skis in the backyard as a toddler and in lessons by 2. Somewhere around third grade, his life changed.
Ronald Wallace ran a business that specialized in collectable 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 for various probation violations. He was released in December 2015.
"On and off throughout those years, he'd be home and then gone," Yater-Wallace said. "I'd go on a trip, and my mom wouldn't tell me, because she wouldn't want to mess with my skiing. When I got home, she'd be like, 'Hey, Torin, sorry, it happened again.'"
He talked to his father every day when he was in prison.
"The love never stopped," Yater-Wallace said. "It was definitely a bummer when you can't be there in person for us when we're going through the hard times."
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 in the documentary. "I could tell it would pretty much kill him."
Soon after a sponsorship deal from Armada skis, he 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 took second.
"From there, our lives were completely turned around," said Yater-Wallace, whose grandfather is Renny Yater, the founder of Yater surfboards in Santa Barbara, California. "Everything changed overnight, from barely affording rent to chasing this crazy dream of being a pro skier."
A rising standout, 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.
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 a few years before.
"It was just horrible and a scary thought to know the person that helps 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 had to make the drive from Aspen to Park City, Utah, to get some ski boots fitted but kept feeling worse and worse along the way. Once he arrived, he went to see several doctors and they all said the same thing — the 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. He had tubes running in and out of his body.
"He looked like death that whole time," his mom said in the movie.
Once he was alert, the work began. He lost about 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. "Nothing beats the freedom of being out there and of going fast and feeling the fresh air in your face. I'll definitely never forget that first day."
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.
"Sometimes, you can't help but feel that something around you or something in this world doesn't want you to succeed," Yater-Wallace said. "But dealing with hard times, it motivates you to push through."
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