By EDDIE PELLS
For years, Tom Wallisch’s focus in skiing was more about fun than fame or fortune.
An otherworldly video and a surprise decision from Olympic leaders changed his perspective.
Wallisch, the 2012 Winter X Games champion in slopestyle skiing, hopes to be among the new faces to watch on the U.S. team when the Sochi Games start a year from Thursday, bringing with them the debut of skiing events on the slopestyle course and in the superpipe.
“The whole thing’s a little surreal,” the 25-year-old Wallisch said of his sport’s fast-tracked inclusion onto the world’s biggest sports stage. “I definitely had not expected it. But it’s good news.”
Well known inside his sport’s circles, Wallisch does some sponsorship work with North Face and has other endorsement deals. But he has considerable ground to cover to get into the same stratosphere with, say, Shaun White, Bode Miller or Lindsey Vonn, who hopes she’ll be recovered from her season-ending knee and leg injuries in time to be at full strength for 2014.
Still, the potential is there for the Pittsburgh native, even if he didn’t fully recognize it at first.
Wallisch put on his first pair of skis on at age 3, learned to ski at a small resort in Maryland called Wisp and, like so many daredevil athletes in the making, spent some outdoor time doing jumps off the roof of his parents’ house.
Not until 2006, when a company in search of the next, great up-and-coming freestyle skier asked candidates to make videos showing what they could do, did Wallisch truly realize his potential. In one video, Wallisch works his way down the mountain, effortlessly gliding over rails, twisting and flipping off the ramps on the slopestyle course.
“I did the video and people out there were watching it and labeling it things like, ‘If Jesus Skied,’ and other stuff like that,” Wallisch said. “I thought ‘Whoa. These people think I deserve to be a pro skier. I guess I could try that. I might have to try a little harder at this.’”
Thus, a career on both the filming and competition sides of freestyle skiing was born.
Wallisch moved to Utah, where he had more time to work on his craft. The effort culminated in a gold medal in Aspen at last year’s Winter X Games, which came only a few months after slopestyle got a somewhat unexpected invite to join the Olympics.
“We were thinking it could be another four, eight years before we ever got this chance, and we were fine with that,” Wallisch said. “There were no slopestyle athletes pushing to get into the Olympics. It’s something we’ve done for a long time and we love it.”
In their latest push to bring a younger audience to their games, Olympic organizers added the ski events and also brought snowboard slopestyle in for the 2014 Games. The addition of snowboard slopestyle gives White, the two-time defending champion on the halfpipe, a chance to win another medal and entertain fans for more than just one evening during the Olympic fortnight.
“It’s humbling. It’s cool,” White said. “If I can bring attention to the sport and help it along, that’s exciting for me. Going back and doing a third time around in the halfpipe would’ve been fun and exciting but not nearly as exciting as it’s going to be to compete in both.”
With a year to go, White does not yet look like a shoo-in for the slopestyle gold. He finished fifth at the X Games, while 19-year-old Canadian Mark McMorris took his second straight gold.
A tireless worker who increased the difficulty of his halfpipe routine by adding his double-flipping, 1260-degree-turning trick before the last Olympics, White conceded after his most recent loss, “I’ve got some work to do in the slopestyle department.”
The defending Olympic champion in the downhill is looking at about an eight-month recovery once she’s through with surgery on torn ligaments in her right knee. That would give her plenty of time to be ready for Russia. But her wipeout in Austria earlier this week certainly changed the dynamics of the 365-day lead-up to the Sochi Games.
“That was difficult for all of us because she’s such a great champion,” said her teammate and rival, Julia Mancuso, who added two silver medals at the last Olympics to go with the gold she won in 2006. “We’re the same age. We’ve been skiing together our whole career. This is the first time she’s had a real serious injury. If you’re going to do it, this is the best time because she’s got plenty of time to get ready for the Olympics.”
At almost every venue in Sochi, the resort in the Caucasus Mountains the Russians are spending upwards of $51 billion to develop for the Games, the U.S. team will have medal contenders.
Expected to be among them: White and Kelly Clark in snowboarding; Meryl Davis and Charlie White in ice dancing; the men’s and women’s hockey teams; Vonn, Mancuso, Ted Ligety and Miller in Alpine; defending bobsled champion Steven Holcomb; Shani Davis and Heather Richardson in speedskating.
The addition of several events in the action-sports category will almost certainly benefit the United States, which has won 14 of the 24 medals awarded on the halfpipe since snowboarding was introduced in 1998.
Wallisch, who is recovering from a knee injury that hampered him at this year’s Winter X Games, figures he’ll be healthy enough to compete for one of freestyle skiing’s new Olympic gold medals — one of the ultimate prizes in sports, but one that never entered his mind until the last few years.
“Growing up, I always dreamed of going to the X Games, or going out and skiing and filming for these movies,” he said. “After last year and doing so well at Aspen, I reached a point where the thing that comes to mind is the Olympics. I’m a little older. I won’t get too many shots at it. I’m definitely looking forward to this upcoming year.”