Vail’s Elana Chase helps Aspen skiers tackle Olympic halfpipe
Special to The Aspen Times
BONGPYEONG, South Korea — Elana Chase met both Torin Yater-Wallace and Alex Ferreira when they were about 8 years old, when she was a coach at Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.
Ferreira was an impeccably polite boy who walked up and introduced himself. The kid couldn’t get enough of the trampoline.
She met Yater-Wallace on a chairlift. He was already a confident free-rider who “skied with purpose.” When she pictures Yater-Wallace as a kid, she pictures him with a cast on his hand — it seemed like he was always breaking something.
The common denominator was that they loved to ski. And they always showed up to training — for park, for powder, for whatever — because they loved to ski.
“They showed up and showed up and showed up,” said Chase, who now lives in Vail and is director of the freeski program at Ski and Snowboard Club Vail.
That work ethic continues 15 years later, as Yater-Wallace and Ferreira are competing together at the Olympics — Yater-Wallace’s second and Ferreira’s first.
Chase remains their coach, and she is here at the Olympics, at the top of the pipe for the competitions, to provide support to the young men who are both favorites to medal.
“She’s the person that I find gives me the best advice and knows me well because we’ve worked so long together,” Yater-Wallace said. “Where, say, somebody else, maybe a coach, comes up to you to try and give you advice, she kind of knows the way I work where I go up to her to get advice.”
With Aaron Blunck (who attended Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy and was previously coached by Chase), Ferreira and Yater-Wallace going 1-2-3 in Tuesday’s qualifying, Chase’s coaching fingerprints are all over this ski halfpipe competition.
Chase works in concert with the coaches on the U.S. team.
“She’s obviously an amazing coach. She obviously is good at what she does and those guys see something special and get good results with her,” said U.S. Ski Team halfpipe coach Ben Verge, adding that they let Yater-Wallace and Ferreira “drive that ship and do what works best for them.”
Chase has been coaching Yater-Wallace for so long, he struggled to even recall the number of years. Yater-Wallace noted that the U.S. Ski Team has its own coaches and camps, but having the familiar presence of Chase adds an element of familiarity.
“Just having that person that you’ve been sitting with your whole life,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a safe zone.”
Chase, who grew up in Connecticut and Vermont, now has nearly 20 years of coaching experience at Okemo Mountain School, Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and Ski and Snowboard Club Vail. A former alpine skier at Montana State and moguls competitor with the U.S. Freestyle Development Team, Chase perhaps doesn’t fit the mold of a freeski role model for young kids.
“I don’t look freeski,” she said. “I don’t look the part at all.”
But the kids who look past those superficialities tend to be the most coachable and the best fit for Chase.
“The kids I work with generally just want to get better,” she said. “If you’ve got the information and the goods, they’re going to take it.”
Ferreira is one of those kids. Chase calls him a voracious listener and reader, sucking in all the information that makes him a better skier and person.
In the past 10 months, Ferreira has been on fire, with wins at Tignes, France; Cardrona, New Zealand; and Dew Tour in Breckenridge. He has landed on the podium at X Games in Aspen, Mammoth and Snowmass.
“He’s a really fun and easygoing guy, but he’s very calculated in the way he’s approached the last 12 months,” she said. “Every minute of the day he knows what he’s doing. It’s all focus.”
Yater-Wallace failed to qualify for finals in Sochi, struggling with a collapsed lung and broken ribs. In 2015, he nearly died due to a rare bacterial infection, spending 10 days in a medically induced coma, but was able to come back and win Oslo X Games two months after being released from the hospital. His personal and professional challenges were recently documented in the film “Back to Life.”
Chase sees Yater-Wallace as a steely competitor who can look inside himself and bring out the best performances.
“I think what sets him apart and why all the competitors respect him is just how incredibly good he is under pressure,” she said. “How he’s able to continually pull out performances year after year after year with adversities, or coming back from injuries, or whatever’s going on.”
Fifteen years after she met them, Chase will be at the top of the halfpipe Thursday helping Yater-Wallace and Ferreira reach their dreams of an Olympic medal.
No matter what happens, she won’t linger here at the Olympics, the pinnacle of the sport. By Saturday, she aims to be back in Vail, coaching her freeski kids, who are as young as 12, at the beginning of their journey.
“It helps you tell the story to the next kid and get them stoked,” she said.
The Aspen School District could collect an extra $1.2-1.5 million in tax dollars annually as a result of the district switching to local funding in fiscal year 2023-2024.