Torin Yater-Wallace: The unreal life of a real local teen
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
BASALT – Converse with Torin Yater-Wallace, and he will try to convince you that he’s an ordinary teenager.
He will tell you about playing video games, hanging out with his girlfriend, and doing laps in the skate park and on the hill with childhood friends. He will tell you about his struggles trying to keep up with schoolwork.
The Basalt resident certainly looks and acts the part – from the skinny jeans and unkempt hair spilling out from under an oversized beanie to his reserved, downright shy demeanor.
You’re compelled to believe him, but you know better – particularly after the last few weeks.
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Normal teenagers don’t have nearly 500 Twitter followers or videos of them flooding the Internet. They don’t get inundated with interview requests or have agents bombarding them with a steady stream of e-mails and telephone calls.
They don’t get stopped in airports by zealous autograph seekers.
Normal teenagers don’t land double corked 1260s in the superpipe. They are not lauded by freeskiing titans like Kevin Rolland and Simon Dumont.
They don’t have Winter X Games silver medals buried under a mountain of clothes on their bedroom floors.
Normal teenagers don’t get to make history, to live out a dream less than two months after their 15th birthdays – with the world watching, no less.
“It’s definitely been overwhelming,” Yater-Wallace admits. “I never expected to do anything like this when I was this young.
“This is definitely something I’ll remember forever.”
• • • •
Geoff Stump’s mind was racing.
In the hours before Jan. 28’s Winter X men’s ski superpipe finals, the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club freestyle coach watched his young pupil struggle through a less than encouraging practice round. He saw Yater-Wallace first shake his head, then complain of knee pain.
After the young skier fell on his first of three runs in the finals, Stump searched for the right words of encouragement.
He did not need them.
“Usually in a situation like that, I run a few scenarios through my head where I try and help them not think about the fall and move forward,” Stump says. “He skied through the corral and was shaking everybody’s hand, and I was down at the end where [the athletes] wait for snowmobiles. When he saw me, he looked directly at me and said, ‘This is what I love.’ He had just fallen, yet he had this huge smile on his face.”
Yater-Wallace, Winter X Games 15’s youngest athlete, appeared immune to the pressure. Rather than cower under the gleam of the bright lights and the din of the massive crowd, the baby-faced Aspen High freshman was reveling in the moment.
“Just getting my invite to the X Games was insane. I just wanted to go out there and do my thing,” Yater-Wallace says. “I didn’t feel like I should have any pressure on me at all.”
“He was really calm and composed. … I was probably more nervous than he was,” AVSC coach Travis Redd jokingly adds.
“He knew what he needed to do. He didn’t let the craziness of the situation get the best of him. He’s always had that ability. He’s really something special.”
AVSC coaches have known that for years. In a town and valley teeming with talented children, Yater-Wallace stood out from the start.
Stump still remembers when a precocious yet diminutive 7-year-old and his mother successfully persuaded the club to let the youngster tag along with members of the advanced park and pipe squad.
“He did the whole Base Camp program … but he was bored and kept saying, ‘Mom, I need to go up higher. What can we do?'” mother Stace Wallace remembers.
“He was on roller blades at nine months, then progressed to skiing and snowboarding on the mountain by Basalt High School. … We needed him to be in a club situation, so he could learn how to do it right.”
Any skepticism Stump harbored effectively was quashed after taking one run with Yater-Wallace.
“There’s a way, as a 7-year-old, that he stood on his skis and the way he made turns. Mostly, as I like to say, the skis were a part of his feet,” Stump remembers.
“He started coming out for half-day sessions once a week. The older guys started calling him their mascot.”
This mascot fit right in.
“I had some 17- and 18-year-olds in my group, and I was thinking, ‘How is this going to work?’ … He kept getting better and better,” Stump says. “He didn’t have the strength or speed for jumps yet, but on those rails you’d watch him and say, ‘Oh, my gosh.'”
While he started out competing in moguls with AVSC, Yater-Wallace soon opted to focus solely on park and pipe.
“He was just possessed,” Stace Wallace says. “He’d come home [from a day skiing] and spend three more hours on the trampoline or building jumps [in the backyard] and working on them way past dark until we’d finally haul him in. The whole next day would be the same thing.
“You look at somebody like that and you think that they’re going to make it. It’s just a matter of when.”
Yater-Wallace soon distinguished himself during his ascent through the junior-circuit ranks.
Not everything came easily, however.
“I could tell he was a natural from the start, but at a certain age that’s not good enough anymore,” Stump says. “A couple of years ago he was having a rough season, but I was watching him keep putting the work in. … I don’t see that ever changing with him. It’s not always easy and not always fun, but he’s seen the rewards come out of it.”
Yater-Wallace’s stellar 2009-2010 season culminated with a Gatorade Free Flow Tour halfpipe victory, helping him garner both notoriety and a spot in the field for this season’s Dew Tour.
This pint-sized phenom seized his opportunity. In December, Yater-Wallace scored a fifth-place finish at a Dew Tour stop in Breckenridge and was ninth at the Grand Prix at Copper Mountain.
“It happened so fast – it’s been surreal for everybody,” Redd said. “He was given an opportunity and really made a name for himself.”
Soon after, the Winter X Games came calling.
Yater-Wallace received an official invite from ESPN on New Year’s Eve.
“My mobile phone was on normal mode. … It was so loud in that house that it sounded like I was on speakerphone,” Stump jokes. “Listening to those guys scream was pretty fun.”
“I’ve watched the X Games every year. I’ve always wanted to be in it,” Yater-Wallace says. “I grew up watching guys like Candide Thovax, Simon Dumont and Tanner Hall. My whole life, this has definitely been my dream.”
• • • •
That dream became a reality in Jan. 26’s qualifying round. The young kid who once was a forerunner at Winter X was now part of the main event. The budding star whose skiing oozes style and fluidity, who used to watch action sport’s preeminent pipe competition as a fan, now was inside the ropes, sharing the 567-foot Buttermilk pipe with former gold medalists and accomplished pros – even Dumont, his boyhood idol.
As if that could overwhelm Yater-Wallace.
Instead, the third-youngest male competitor in Winter X history laid down a near-flawless second qualifying run to nab a score of 91 from judges – good for third place.
Improbably, Yater-Wallace was heading to the finals.
“The kids he skis with were asking me afterward, ‘Did I just watch Torin qualify at the X Games?’ This is just blowing my mind,” Stump said in an interview with The Aspen Times on Jan. 26. “That’s what Torin is, he can land all his tricks really consistently and especially under pressure.”
That uncanny level of poise and maturity would be tested two nights later – especially after a first-run blunder.
Yater-Wallace did not flinch. After all, he knew this pipe. He had the hometown crowd in his corner. He had simulated this moment thousands of times during all those days and nights spent sliding and jumping in the backyard.
After taking a second to stare intently at the snow and gather his thoughts, Yater-Wallace dropped in for a second run. Less than 30 seconds later, he stomped an alley-oop flatspin on the final hit, generating a thunderous roar – one that only intensified when a score of 87.60 flashed across the screen, putting him in second behind Dumont, his team Target cohort.
“I was just happy he had a good run – it never occurred to me he could podium,” says Stace Wallace, who watched from the family section with daughter Saren.
“That was such a confidence boost,” Yater-Wallace added. “I was really happy. All I knew is that I couldn’t do anything worse, so I just went for it.”
One could not script what happened next.
Yater-Wallace opened his third run with an alley-oop flatspin 540 and a double corked 1260. After a 900 and corked 540, He finished once more with an alley-oop double flatspin – a trick he perfected in the month leading up to Winter X.
Moments later, with television cameras centered on him, the wide-eyed first-timer learned he had supplanted Dumont on top of the leaderboard with a 92.66.
“I totally was in shock … It was funny to look at him. He kept saying, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh,'” says Stace Wallace.
Redd watched the scene unfold from the top of the pipe.
“I let it out. I’m pretty sure I was cheering, screaming and dancing around. I wanted to run right down the middle of the pipe, but the starter wouldn’t let me,” he jokes. “I didn’t wait for a snowmobile. I ran right down the side of the pipe, then jumped a fence into the corral.
“I don’t think there were even words. We just looked at each other in complete disbelief.”
Yater-Wallace’s time on top was short-lived; Frenchman Rolland closed out the competition with the run of the night, capturing his second consecutive gold in the event.
Nothing could temper the teen’s excitement, however, as he celebrated with competitors and shared a touching embrace with his mom and sister.
Afterward, Rolland was quick to heap praise on the skier standing to his right on the podium – the skier who became the youngest male ever to win a medal at Winter X.
“He’s incredible. … When I was 15, I was about to do a 900 in the pipe. He finished second at X Games, so it’s great,” Rolland said.
Added Dumont: “I’m psyched for Torin. It’s awesome to see him throw it down. It’s not an easy thing to get on Target. … We realized his potential. He proved us right tonight.”
• • • •
It’s been more than three weeks, but Stump says he still is trying to fully comprehend what took place at Buttermilk.
“I’ve been watching him ski for a long time, but that was just amazing,” he says. “It was debatable whether Torin would’ve even been invited to the X Games without being from [the valley]. The X Games wanted a good story, and they figured this kid might be a good story.
“He was the story.”
This story is just beginning. If the past few weeks are any indication, the spotlight presently shining on Yater-Wallace is only going to intensify.
Stace Wallace is working two jobs these days – she’s a cook at Aspen Country Day School, then spends nearly every night sorting through texts, e-mails and phone calls from agents and others interested in discussing possible business ventures.
“It’s a whole other level. It goes until about midnight, then I get up at 5, walk the dog and start all over again,” she says. “The craziness has begun in full. It’s funny, but at the beginning of the season we thought there would only be four or five comps. We thought that would be it.”
This recent whirlwind shows no signs of slowing, in spite of a recent injury; Yater-Wallace crashed during a practice run before a recent Dew Tour event in Utah, breaking his thumb and sustaining a black eye.
He was slated to have surgery Feb. 17, and he is expected to compete at March’s Winter X Games Europe in Tignes, France.
For the time being, Stump is doing what he can to help foster some semblance of normalcy.
Admittedly, that is easier said than done.
“His mom knows and the coaching staff knows about all the business opportunities and the people that want to talk about those kinds of things. All that stuff is very important, but it’s important to remember he’s still just 15. … He’s our skier, and we want to keep him doing what he does,” Stump says.
“I think he’s done a good job of taking advantage of some of those opportunities while taking it slow and not rushing into things. … I don’t think anyone’s intention is to hold off, but a lot of people have been ruined by that kind of stuff. That’s why you’ve got to be cautious. If you lose your grounding getting all that attention and get thrown a lot of money, that’s a bad combination.”
Others no doubt are keeping an eye on the future – specifically on a International Olympic Committee decision whether freestyle skiing will be added to the docket for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which could be announced in the coming months.
Yater-Wallace, meanwhile, is not getting ahead of himself. An athlete so comfortable reaching new heights sure appears to be firmly grounded.
“I haven’t really even had time to drool over [my medal] yet. I haven’t really had time to do anything,” he jokes.
“This has definitely been one of the craziest times of my life. This is my favorite sport, and to get to do it as a career is insane. This is a dream come true.”
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