Olympic freestyle skier goes for gold in South Korea after near-death illness
(PYEONGCHANG, South Korea) -- Champion freestyle ski prodigy Torin Yater-Wallace has always faced adversity head-on and uses setbacks as catalysts for growth and future goals -- including, he hopes, an Olympic gold medal in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The 22-year-old Aspen, Colorado, native sat down with ABC News to discuss his long hard-fought journey to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
Yater-Wallace is familiar with bending over backward and taking leaps of faith to succeed as a freestyle skier in halfpipe, but when family struggles and a life-threatening liver infection came into play, he had to face the unexpected hurdles head-on.
He recently shared his story about battling from the brink of death to his place atop the X-Games podium in “Back to Life,” a documentary produced by Red Bull.
“It was honestly more just wanting to tell a story that happens to be real life,” Yater-Wallace told Watt about his reasoning for doing the documentary. “It was also just a window to look into the life of a professional athlete. ... You see what they do on TV and see them winning all these medals and you know life looks perfect and beautiful. But ultimately you don't know anything about it,” he said.
“Skiing is what saved my life and it was my getaway as a kid,” Yater-Wallace said of his challenges early in life. At just 12 years old, his father was arrested, indicted and convicted of fraud and sent to prison. “The feds just took my dad from my sister and I and my mom and it was emotional and it was a hard time to go through as a kid,” he explained.
But he turned to skiing to help him through that difficult time and quickly rose to the top of the competition. “It happened, it sucks, but you really just have to adapt to an older version of yourself at a young age.”
Yater-Wallace has racked up an impressive list of accolades, including eight X-Games medals, starting with a silver medal in 2011 when he was just 15.
The young skiing phenom fought back from a collapsed lung in 2014 to qualify for his first Olympics in Sochi and had more family struggles waiting at home.
“I dealt with [a] pretty severe injury leading into Sochi and had only skied 10 days that year after collapsing my lung twice and breaking my ribs,” he said.
“My mom got diagnosed with cancer when I was going into the Olympic qualifying process for Sochi ... She was in and out of the hospital just in a horrible state,” Yater-Wallace added.
“It was always just that thought of why me,” he said of the setbacks.
Less than a year later, he fell ill during a ski run in Utah and was airlifted to a nearby hospital where he was diagnosed with a deadly liver infection that hospitalized him for 20 days.
“Before I knew it, I was being flown to a hospital in Salt Lake [City] and was in a medically induced paralysis, in a sedated state and had an infection that took over my liver,” he said. “My gallbladder caused a massive abscess on my vital organs [and they] were shutting down.”
Yater-Wallace bounced back from his illness and once he was cleared to ski, he went on to compete and won gold at the X-Games in Oslo. “That was special. It was really cool,” he said.
With his health back on track, Yater-Wallace is competing in his second Olympics and this time his family will be by his side.
"In my eyes, he was still my hero and still the person that I looked up to," he said of his father who served his time in prison. "And nothing has changed till this day. I still love my dad to death."
Even with his family's support, he said the competition will be stiff in South Korea.
“The standard is unprecedented it's insane,” he said of the scoring adding that even the slightest mistake can dash his chances. “I almost will just give up on the run and ski down because I just know it's not going to score high and that's just how competitive the sport's gotten.”
But Yater-Wallace said that although the name implies the runs are completely unrestricted, his routine comes down to muscle memory and he knows what he needs to do to score big.
“Everything is planned out and everything is routine muscle memory. We've done this stuff a million times. I'm not just going in hucking in my body and hoping I don't die,” he explained. “It’s calculated to the point where you know what each trick is going to score.”
And for a young athlete whose already proved he can come out on top despite all odds, he said there is only one thing that will put him on the podium this time.
“You gotta be perfect. It's all there is to it.”
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