One ski still can launch you onto a podium
ASPEN Nobody can know what Tyler Walker felt when the doctor chopped off his legs at age 4, after it became obvious the muscle never was going to grow. And nobody can know what makes Walker so fearless on one little ski that, after seeing him rip, able-bodied athletes want to try his discipline – the one where he sits on a springy chair and rockets down icy slopes like he was born to do it.But thanks to Walker’s willingness to try, we have an analogy to help us comprehend what he and 12 other sit skiers experienced on Saturday, when mono skiercross made its Winter X Games debut as a medal event.Sitting in his wheelchair after winning the gold, Walker, 20, took a moment to ensure he did the feeling justice.”Imagine you’re in a car doing a buck-20 on a road that’s designed for 30 miles an hour, and trying to make it work,” he said. “You have a safety belt but no airbags.”That was it. In a nutshell: Good luck.Only, Walker didn’t need luck. Just a chance to show why his fellow U.S. Ski Team members call him a “natural.” “He’s that guy who can take all the chances and rip a solid line fast,” said World Cup skier Gerald Hayden, who was in the inaugural field.
Saturday marked a special moment for these athletes. This was not “Para-X Games.” It was the real deal. The gold medal Walker held after dominating his four-skier final in wire-to-wire fashion, well, it was the same one they give to Shaun White, Tanner Hall and every other badass winter athlete who has felt that untouchable feeling over the years.”This is a unique experience, racing down a course filled with jumps, next to someone,” said Walker, a 100-pound college geography major with a 190-pound bench press, who hails from the same town, Franconia, N.H., as Bode Miller. “We’ve tried to do stuff like this in the past, call it Chinese Downhill, first one to the bottom wins. But nothing like this where you have to go through gates with big jumps. I can’t compare it to anything. It’s an experience unto itself.”
Which might explain why seven of the 13 competitors in Saturday’s field failed to finish their qualifying runs, a string of carnage that was due more to the athletes’ aggressiveness than anything else. (It also forced organizers to cancel the consolation final.)Among the carnage victims were Aspen’s hometown favorite, Sam Ferguson, whose binding let go of its ski midrun, and Frisco’s Scott Meyer, who bombed off a jump and paid the price upon landing. But nobody could stop the three skiers who charged into the final alongside Walker: silver medalist Kevin Connolly, bronze medalist Kees-Jan van der Klooster and Sarah Will, the Vail woman on twin-tip skis who didn’t appear to mind that she was the only female in the field.In fact, everyone seemed to bring his or her own unique quality to the party at Buttermilk.
“Getting the invite here, I came as a freeskier,” said Connolly, who grew up on the steeps around Bozeman, Mont. “I wasn’t looking for necessarily the fastest line – I know that certainly isn’t what I took most of the time – I was just looking to battle my way through. I’m glad to have done it. I’m definitely still a freeskier.”The Dutch skier van der Klooster, who was paralyzed from the waist down while snowboarding six years ago, tried hard to contain his excitement after the race, and sometimes succeeded.”This is sick!” he bellowed. “This is going fast, with jumps. It goes like, whoom, whoom, and once you take off the first couple jumps right, you get in a swing and it gets so sweet. This is my style; I love it.”Then there was the quiet one with the gold medal around his neck. The kid who professes that life in a wheelchair “is who I am.””Tyler skis like he doesn’t have a disability,” said Nick Catanzarite, a fifth-year U.S. Ski Team member. “I mean, he makes it look fun. He rips. If people look at him and they see him go down the hill, they’re like, ‘What’s that? I wanna do that.’ Tyler makes mono skiing look fun. And it is, but he makes it look amazing.”
“I see able-bodied skiers doing something, I wanna see how I can do it,” Walker said. “I’m not afraid of going fast, going down steeps, big jumps. It’s what I do.”For more Winter X Games coverage, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/x.
Mikaela Shiffrin did a lot of soul searching after she didn’t win a medal and didn’t finish three of her five individual races at last year’s Beijing Olympics after entering the games amid enormous expectations.