There are a lot of stories people tell about Torin Yater-Wallace to qualify his sudden rise to Boy Wonder status in halfpipe skiing. But the one told by his coach, Elana Chase, might explain him the best.
In April 2010, Yater-Wallace, then a little-known 14-year-old from Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley, caught a ride to Copper Mountain for the USASA Nationals, which crown the country's top amateur skiers and snowboarders. He had dominated his 11-15 age group the year before, sweeping the halfpipe and slopestyle titles, so this time he stepped up to the open class -- which, not coincidentally, offered $2,000 to the winner. Despite being the youngest competitor in both competitions, he swept them again, posting an unheard-of score (97.3) in the pipe.
Afterward, Chase found herself surrounded by a group of kids who were awed by what their peer had achieved. One of the boys turned to Chase and said, "What's Torin gonna do with all that money, buy a mountain bike or something?"
Chase looked the boy straight in the eye and answered: "No. He's going to pay rent."
Thinking back now, Chase says: "They had no idea I was dead serious."
When you consider the feel-good glow of Yater-Wallace's stunning silver medal at last year's Winter X Games -- which came in the same pipe he grew up skiing and made him the youngest WX medalist in history, at 15 years, 1 month -- it's easy to overlook his tale's shaded underbelly. But peel back the layers of all that led up to that magical moment in the Buttermilk pipe, and you'll find that Yater-Wallace might embody the American dream even more than he embodies a freeskiing phenomenon.
Only six months before the triumphant night at the Winter X Games, Yater-Wallace was homeless. Because of a wine-futures business gone bad, his father had declared bankruptcy and no longer could support his family. His mother lost her job and couldn't find work, no matter how hard she tried. Before they knew it, Torin and his older sister, Saren, were sleeping on couches and spare beds in family friends' apartments (including Chase's), never staying more than a couple of months before they packed up again and found somewhere new.
"I'd really try not to think about it; I'd just try to go skiing," says Torin, a sophomore at Aspen High School. "If I was thinking about other things while skiing, then I wouldn't be skiing well. But it was definitely tough. We had to move a lot because rent was expensive. For two summers in a row, I'd go on a ski trip to the Utah Olympic Park or Mount Hood, then I'd come home and all my stuff would be packed up and we'd be ready to move again."
He didn't talk about it at school; only his closest friends knew the extent of his family's situation. When asked whom he leaned on during that time, he says, "Nobody, really. I just kind of kept it to myself."
And yet, Yater-Wallace not only survived that period -- he thrived. Fully aware that skiing was his "way out," as Chase put it, he devoted all his effort to the sport and conveniently landed his best runs when the rewards were highest. He turned a wild-card entry at the 2010 Gatorade Free Flow Tour finals -- which he was able to attend only because the trip to Vermont was covered by the organizer -- into a berth on the NBC-televised Dew Tour and, ultimately, a fateful invitation to the Winter X Games.
This week, Yater-Wallace returns to Buttermilk in an entirely different role. No longer the underdog local kid, people actually believe he can win the competition. Two-time defending champion Kevin Rolland of France said: "He's the guy, I think, who can beat me. He's not going to beat me, but he can. He has the height; he has the tricks."
Yater-Wallace is coming in hot, too, having won his first professional competition at this past weekend's Killington Dew Tour -- by a huge margin, to boot. He'll be under scrutiny from the moment he shows up for WX practice until the final hit of his final run. And if he performs as he usually does, you won't see a lick of it affect him.
To understand where Yater-Wallace comes from, it helps to see him at Buttermilk on a random day in early January. He shows up at 10:30 and stashes his backpack in the corner at Bumps -- "where I've been putting it for as long as I can remember," he says -- then grabs his skis and heads to the lift. Construction crews are hard at work on the three-story scaffolding structure below the pipe. Snowcats are pushing around huge piles of snow for the slopestyle course. The scene evokes anticipation of the circus to come. Yater-Wallace is the only Winter X Games athlete in sight.
Contrary to what people might think, Yater-Wallace does not ski pipe religiously. "Maybe two days a week," he says on the chairlift. When asked whether that's less than his competitors, he replies, "I have no idea."
He spends most of his time hitting park jumps at Snowmass, but, lest one get the wrong idea, every moment he spends on snow has a purpose. It's been that way since he was 7 years old and first started skiing with the big kids at the Aspen Valley Ski Club (AVSC). "There's not one day I can think of when he ever missed skiing," Chase said. "If there was a scheduled training day, he always showed up -- and he was the first one there."
If I was thinking about other things while skiing, then I wouldn't be skiing well. It was definitely tough. We had to move a lot because rent was expensive.
When his family ran into financial problems and lost its 5,000-square-foot home in Basalt, AVSC gave Torin scholarships so he could continue training with the club. "I knew I was so fortunate to have that stuff, so I didn't take it for granted," he says. "Every exercise I did, I would do everything they said and not mess around because I didn't want to piss anyone off. I was always just trying my hardest; I had the goal in my head. The whole time, I was just thinking: I want to be the best. This is my favorite sport in the whole world, and I don't ever want to do anything else."
A number of Yater-Wallace's coaches and friends describe him as a "natural," and it's easy to see why. As Rolland says, "The most impressive thing about Torin is not the tricks but how he skis the pipe. He lands at the top of the wall, in the perfect place, every time. For a guy who's only 16, he skis like he's been doing this for 10 years."
Yater-Wallace also masters new pipe tricks quickly. For example, he learned the double-cork 1260 -- one of the hardest maneuvers in the sport -- in "20 or 30 minutes," sticking the first one he tried. And he's always thinking of ways to improve his score, whether that means watching video of himself on his phone at the top of the pipe, squeezing one more half rotation into an unnatural spin or adding a switch hit to his Winter X Games run.
In an ode to his maturity, Yater-Wallace's newfound fame hasn't changed his persona. He's still a blue-collar kid who tunes his own skis, likes to skateboard with his girlfriend and mostly keeps to himself. "Torin never asks for anything," says Devin O'Brien, who manages the action sports program at Target, Yater-Wallace's biggest sponsor. "To get him to tell us what we can do to help is hard. You almost have to pry it out of him."
He's more comfortable laughing about all the fur coats in downtown Aspen or how he walked by Paris Hilton the other day and didn't even know it. In a valley where Lear jets and supermansions and hundred-dollar-bill allowances are normal, he is the kid who worked for what he has, who still pays most of the rent for his family's cramped Snowmass condo, who hears the whispers and has to ignore them.
"I definitely get annoyed with people thinking, 'Oh, that kid's from Aspen, he's so rich, he's sponsored by Target, he doesn't go to school, all he does is travel the world. He must have it all -- his life is easy.' But it's the total opposite," Yater-Wallace says.
He might not identify with many of Aspen's residents, but he knows exactly where he came from, and he honors it every day. That was evident when he finished a five-hit run through the Buttermilk pipe, highlighted by corked 900s in both directions, and a kid with an AVSC sticker skied up to him with a huge grin.
"Wow," the kid said. "That was awesome. That was sweet. Are you Torin Yater-Wallace?"
"Oh. Right on. You gonna be in the X Games this year?"
"Yeah. You guys just out shredding around?"
The kid considered who was standing in front of him. "Eh, you could say that."
They chatted for another minute, then parted ways. As the chairlift rose above the Winter X Games pipe, Torin let loose a satisfied grin. "Two or three years ago, that kid was me."