Editor’s note: This story initially appeared in this week’s edition of the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal, a sister publication of the Aspen Daily News.
During a normal year, professional freeskier Torin Yater-Wallace would be returning from New Zealand to his home near Crown Mountain Park for a brief respite before leaving again to take part in training camps and European glacier skiing.
But this isn’t a normal year for Yater-Wallace, the 23-year-old midvalley native, two-time Olympian and much decorated X Games athlete, who has heretofore been able to spring back from severe injury and debilitating illness.
One fateful run last December at the Breckenridge Dew Tour finals in the “modified halfpipe,” a hybrid event combining halfpipe and slopestyle, changed everything.
Coming in switch (backwards) to a “hip jump,” Yater-Wallace overcompensated on his trajectory and missed his entire landing in the pipe, landing flat from about 40 feet in the air.
“Immediately, I could feel that both heels were shattered,” he recalled last week during an interview at his Carbondale home. The impact caused Yater-Wallace’s knee to strike and break his nose, an injury he’s suffered before.
“My nose is actually straighter now than it was,” he said with a laugh.
But recovery was no laughing matter: “There’s not a lot of margin for error in skiing halfpipe,” he said, the smile suddenly melting away.
Whereas Yater-Wallace had previously contemplated giving up halfpipe competitions, Dec. 16 in Breckenridge sealed the deal.
“I was going to call it quits. This kind of did the job for me,” he said.
In a bit of poetic justice, Yater-Wallace’s teammate and skiing pal since childhood, Alex Ferreira, captured the win that day.
‘Back to Life'
No stranger to challenges on and off the slopes — many of which were captured in the 2017 documentary “Back to Life” that aired on ABC in the run-up to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea — the modified halfpipe crash was “such a traumatic experience,” he recalled.
Following emergency surgery in Frisco, he was moved to the Steadman Clinic in Vail where foot and ankle specialists inserted five screws into his right foot. The swelling was so severe in Yater-Wallace’s left foot that surgeons had to wait a week for the swelling to go down.
“My left foot was completely exploded,” Yater-Wallace said, which subsequently required 11 screws and a plate to put it back together.
Christmas came and passed during this hospital stay, which stretched on even longer.
“I don’t see my family much. Unfortunately, something like this brings you together,” he recalled.
For the first time in his life — he started the sport at 18 months — Yater-Wallace missed an entire ski season. Even during 2015-16, the year that Yater-Wallace was put on full life support after a virulent strain of strep attacked his liver and gallbladder, he managed to return to snow and compete.
A fifth place in the X Games that January was the stepping stone to a triumphant victory six weeks later in the 2016 Oslo, Norway X Games, which remains one of his career high points. He scored a whopping 95.00 out of 100 in that contest.
The gold medal coincided with his father Ron Wallace’s release from prison on federal fraud charges related to his business’ inability to deliver rare vintage wines to wealthy clients. The prior year his mom, Stace, was diagnosed with and treated for cancer.
Road to recovery
In the ABC film, Yater-Wallace’s girlfriend, 25-year-old Sarah Hendrickson notes, “His passion for skiing is overwhelming.” They’ve been together for five years after first being introduced by the agent they share.
Hendrickson, a nine-year member of the U.S. Ski Team’s Nordic jumping team, finished ninth in an international event last week in Austria, the team’s best finish. She took last season off from competition and helped Yater-Wallace to mend.
“The true hero when somebody is truly beat up is the person taking care of them,” he said. “It’s a lot of damn work taking care of someone in a wheelchair.”
He needed it. After being released from the hospital on New Year’s Day, Yater-Wallace began his first day of what would stretch to three months in a wheelchair.
“Returning home, you don’t realize how traumatic and serious everything is, getting through life without two feet,” he said.
His roommates retrofitted the home with ramps and a seat was installed in the shower. Yater-Wallace soberly recalled the challenge of “crawling to the bathroom.” Stace Wallace was ready to provide food and drive him to appointments.
“I was helpless. It was horrific,” said the athlete whose early talent was so evident that he earned an X Games invitation when he was just 15 years old. Yater-Wallace won a silver medal in his inaugural X Games halfpipe contest, in 2011, which caught the attention of sponsors and audiences alike.
By mid-winter of 2019, Yater-Wallace was adapting to his new lifestyle and relative inactivity.
“Once I got my rhythm down, and off the narcotics, I had the wheelchairing down. I was lifting myself up to make coffee,” he recalled. “I only had a couple of days where I was beat down about it.”
But then came the “bomb cyclone” weather system that brought continuous storms to the valley.
“You can’t really roll a wheelchair through two feet of snow,” he said.
By that time, doctors had removed the hard casts stretching to his knees— “they were always camo and very stylish,” he said — swapping them out for air casts that allowed him to walk with crutches.
“Regaining the simple skill of walking correctly, I would never have thought I’d have to do,” he said.
Daily physical therapy sessions were augmented by a stay at sponsor Red Bull’s high performance center in California. By April, Yater-Wallace was starting to transition to regular shoes.
Trying out ‘new stuff’
The cover never came off the skateboard ramp in Yater-Wallace’s backyard this summer. That’s the first time it’s gone unused since he bought his home as a 19-year-old.
To compensate, he’s dabbled in other sports, including golf and mountain biking, that were left behind while he was pursuing his skiing passion.
“I golfed a lot when I was a kid. Then I took an 11-year hiatus. Some nights I’ll just go to the par 3 [Ranch at Roaring Fork course in Carbondale] for therapy,” Yater-Wallace said. “I’m trying out all kinds of new stuff.
“I kinda saw Colorado this summer in a way that most people see it. I feel like some of us almost take it for granted,” he said.
Yater-Wallace is back in the U.S. Ski Team’s Park City home this week as he continues his rehabilitation. Still a member of the pro halfpipe team, he said if he’s going to compete again it will be in slopestyle, which relies upon rails and jumps, rather than a 22-foot halfpipe, as its apparatus.
At the 2020 X Games he plans to attend as a spectator. It wouldn’t be until the 2021 X Games when he would attempt to compete in either slopestyle or big air.
“I don’t have a list of goals, but in my head I have ideas,” he said about the future. “You can’t let that take away from living your life as a professional athlete.”
Right now he is planning out a winter that is centered around shooting footage for a full-length ski film. “You can really express skiing the way you want it to be expressed,” he said.
Yater-Wallace is still gauging when he wants to return to snow; late November or early December seem likely. First he’ll have to ease into new boots as his feet are larger than before the crash.
“There’s really no rush, though there’s a rush in that I want to get back to skiing,” he said. “It’s a good time to have a fire relit under me.”
Without a rigorous competition schedule for 2019-20, he may be able to find time to watch Hendrickson ski jump. The past year has provided plenty of experience “adulting” and enjoying diversions provided within a snowball’s throw of his home.
“I love living here. The grocery store’s a little bigger than in Aspen, gas is cheaper, there’s all this good stuff,” he said, while walking through his backyard.
There, fallen leaves were starting to collect on the unused skateboard ramp. Doctor’s orders are to continue to stay off the skateboard until further notice. Yater-Wallace said he plans to comply.
“In the last year, I’ve had a lot of things happen that made me have to mature and see life in a different way. This is another one for me.”
He joked, “I don’t want to have to make the movie, ‘Back to Life, Again!’”