X Games teen sensations flush with fame, fortune
The Denver Post/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN -Imagine being a 14-year-old superstar. Loads of cash. Adored by hordes of fans. Hounded by media. Sponsored by giant corporations. Traveling the world, training and competing. Spending months away from mom and dad. Riding all day, studying American history and algebra at night.
A dozen of today’s Winter X Games stars are teenagers who are finding themselves flush with fame and fortune while tracking toward Olympic stardom, their teenage life engulfed by a grown-up world of business, travel and competition.
“I don’t feel like I’m missing anything,” said Torin Yater-Wallace, a 16-year-old superpipe jedi from Basalt who last year jettisoned from local Aspen ripper to international ski superstar destined for the Olympic stage. “It’s hard for sure, but for the most part I think it’s good for me. It matures me faster. I can take on more responsibilities and learn life lessons and I get to travel the world and ski.”
This fall the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association will open the USSA Academy at its Park City, Utah, Center of Excellence training facility. The center, born to address the increasingly youthful athletes who are reaching the top tier of their sports, will host a small cadre of young elite and developmental athletes.
“Athletes are developing at a young age into an elite level and we want to provide them the opportunity to become well-rounded people as well as elite athletes,” said Mike Jankowski, head coach of the U.S. snowboarding and freeskiing halfpipe and slopestyle athletes.
Yater-Wallace on Saturday finished third in the superpipe, his second Winter X medal and third of the season.
Since breaking onto the big stage last year with a silver at the X Games – making him the youngest medalist in X Games history – Yater-Wallace has toured the world, enlisting sponsors and winning comps.
“We call last year our Justin Bieber moment,” said Torin’s mother, Stace Yater-Wallace. “It’s been quite a ride. Lots of changes.”
With a swelling bank account, sponsors that include Target, a berth on the U.S. Freeskiing Team and an itinerary of a United Nations diplomat, Yater-Wallace is a busy kid with a stack of overdue math homework.
“It’ a full-time job doing what he has going, on top of school,” said his mother, a longtime Aspen businesswoman who is teaching her youngest child about money management. “He just told me, ‘Mom, I really want to be here for prom this year.’ It’s a really big deal for him to have a normal life.”
The responsibilities of stardom are an enviable burden. Still, for a youngster the sudden stress can disrupt the already roiling teenage life. Angst over teen relationships or pocket money or schoolwork yields to grownup duties including job performance, travel, financial management, exposure and sponsors.
“We kind of have to be like businessmen,” said 17-year-old Nick Goepper, whose poise in the air Thursday night earned the X Games rookie a silver in the ski slopestyle contest.
These are titans on the snow and business managers with homework. Goepper, who spends most of his winters on the road, away from his three siblings and family in Indiana, takes his high school classes online.
“It’s hard work to have an awesome day of skiing and all you really want to do is jump in the hot tub but you know you have to work on physics,” he said. “It takes some motivation.”
Motivating teenagers can be a monumental task, especially when they are singularly focused on their sports.
“It can be a super challenge for the young athletes,” Jankowski said. “What we try to do is set up a good environment so they can take care of their responsibilities and move forward with their academic studies while working toward the goal of becoming an Olympian.”
Family dynamics also change when a child becomes a bread-winning champion who is perpetually informed of his or her greatness.
But inevitibly, it’s the moms who keep the families grounded.
“At home it’s so different than the tour,” said 18-year-old Devin Logan, a U.S. Ski Team young gun from Vermont who competes in pipe and slopestyle and won silver in Thursday’s slopestyle contest. “My mom doesn’t let my head get too big. She keeps me in my place, which is nice.”
For a teenager who spends most of the winter months traveling across the globe and summers training in New Zealand, consistent family time evaporates. Siblings can grow apart and parents pine for their babies.
“It’s hard for them to get away and travel and I’m their only kid, their little girl,” said Maddy Schaffrick, a 17-year-old from Steamboat Springs who lives by herself and has been traveling the planet as a professional snowboarder for three years. “I think my parents get sad but they know this is what I love to do. There are sacrifices, but still, I wouldn’t change anything.”
In many ways for traveling athletes, team becomes family.
“That’s the core of what we are,” Jankowski said. “We travel together, we train together, we compete together. It’s a really special bond that everyone comes together with a common goal of being the best in the world and growing into good people.”
Sponsors too can play a role in guiding both the personal and professional development of young athletes. Companies such as Target and Red Bull hire tutors, train athletes in media relations and provide structure for young lives.
“They want to grow with someone in that sense and support that kid,” said Shaun White, who was not even a teenager when he landed Burton as his first sponsor, and eventually rose to the most accomplished and recognized snowboarder in the world. “I was that kid at one point. I was the kid back in the day that got the help from Burton and Target then became what I am now.”
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After getting the go-ahead from state health officials, CHSAA has given four sports the thumbs-up to compete this fall: boys golf, boys tennis, softball and cross country.