SALT LAKE CITY — Walking three miles isn't much of a challenge for X Games gold medalist Tom Wallisch.
But for someone like his beloved aunt, Bonnie Higgins, the task can be the kind of extreme challenge Wallisch finds in freeskiing.
Higgins has multiple sclerosis and for as long as Wallisch can remember, he and his family have supported her by participating in the yearly MS Walk.
"My aunt Bonnie was diagnosed with the disease when I was really young," Wallisch said. "It's always been something I was involved with because my aunt was so affected by the disease."
Higgins said she was diagnosed in 1994 and almost immediately got involved in the MS Society. The first year she walked with just her mother and cousin. Eventually the team grew to 48 people and in 17 years has raised more than $376,000 for research and outreach programs.
Higgins now works with newly diagnosed patients and is on the national board of the MS Society.
Multiple Sclerosis is a disabling disease in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system and interrupts the flow of information between the brain and the body. While more than 400,000 people suffer from MS in the U.S., it's estimated about 2.1 million people battle the disease worldwide.
For Wallisch it is also a chance to show his Aunt Bonnie how much he loves and admires her.
Not only will he walk the Salt Lake MS Walk with her, but he will do it in his ski boots. His goal is to send the message that those with MS have to fight much harder to do seemingly simple activities.
It is an act that deeply moves Higgins.
"I'm so touched that Tom wants to do this," Higgins said. "At his age and as busy as he is, this kid travels all over the world. It means so much to me that he's taking time out to do something for me, and for everybody who struggles with MS. It touches my heart more than I can say."
Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wallisch moved to Utah to study business at the University of Utah in 2009. He chose Utah because he thought he could also enjoy the Greatest Snow on Earth.
Very quickly, his education took a back seat to his skiing. Now a member of the U.S. freeskiing team, he plans to earn a spot on the 2014 Olympic team when his sport of slopestyle skiing makes its Olympic debut.
He is well on his way to making that dream come true after one of his most successful seasons ever. This winter he not only won the X Games gold medal in slopestlye skiing, but he won the Winter Dew Tour championship as well. He was also voted the 2012 Action Sports Star of the year on ESPN.com and the 2011 Skier of the Year by Freeskier Magazine.
In fact, it was his success that caused him to participate in the 23rd annual Walk MS Salt Lake City at the Gateway Mall this Saturday.
"I haven't done one since living in Utah on my own," he said. "Traveling and competing, I just haven't had the time. This year has gone so well, and I started thinking about how fortunate and lucky I am, and it made me think more about what I can do to give back."
The MS Walk is something he was very familiar with because he did it often as a child.
Not that Wallisch loved walking when he was a kid.
"I always wanted to run," he said. "I was always a competitive little kid. And that's helped make me successful. But the walk is about as far from competitive as you can get."
Wallisch was moved to action because of how valiantly his aunt has battled the debilitating disease. Right now, she's in remission and grateful.
"I've had some tough times, though," she said. She lost her vision right after the birth of her son 11 years ago and has occasionally lost movement in one leg or one arm. She's struggled with aphasia, which is similar to what stroke victims often suffer when they know what they want to say but can't articulate it.
"I had a corporate job, and when you're in a board room, and all of a sudden it hits, it's a very difficult thing. But it's just something you learn to work through."
Team Wallisch is accepting donations (walkutu.nationalmssociety.org/site/PageServer?pagename=WLK_UTU_homepage), but the extreme skier is also hoping some of his sponsors will make their fundraising goals easier.
"I just want to show support for those like bonnie, and hopefully we'll raise as much money as we can," he said. "The goal is to find a cure for MS."