Tom Wallisch spent the last year skiing with an injured knee because he hoped to make the first-ever Olympic slopestyle ski team.
But the 2013 FIS world ski champion didn’t endure the pain of a torn MCL simply because he wanted a shot at an Olympic medal. Rather, the freeski pioneer wanted to make sure his sport was represented in all of its complexity and completeness in Sochi.
“I never wanted our sport to go to the Olympics,” said the 26-year-old Salt Lake City resident. “I wanted to bring light and more recognition to all aspects of our sport — like the filming, the big mountain skiing, the urban skiing — parts of our sport that don’t get any recognition. I was worried that the people who would go and represent our country would just focus on contests or this trick or that trick.”
To Wallisch, and many other freeskiers, the sport is as much about creativity, expression and art as it is about competition.
“I wanted to make sure I was there to keep our sport going in the right direction,” he said.
But Wallisch’s knee injury slowed him this winter, and he didn’t make the inaugural slopestyle ski team. The U.S. will instead be represented by Winter X Games gold medalist Nick Goepper, Park City’s Joss Christensen and Colorado native Gus Kenworthy.
Goepper teamed up with Red Bull to make a video that breaks down what slopestyle skiers do and why. It’s beautiful and scientific, and it allows fans some insight into just how technical and well-thought-out the tricks these athletes perform are.
They choose slopestyle “not because we’re trying to be cool or fit in,” Goepper said in the video. “It’s our art and we’re dedicated to it.”
The 19-year-old Indiana native talked with the Deseret News before the Winter X Games and said that while he played nearly every traditional sport available to him, it was freeskiing that moved him.
“You have the freedom to do whatever you want,” he said. “You have the ability to be creative.”
He admits that the Olympics changed things, but not all of the changes were a bad thing.
“Right now, every four years, the Olympics is going to be the top priority,” he said. “What’s cool about our sport is that there is so much more we can focus on. ... There are so many other avenues in our career.”
Meanwhile, even though Wallisch was disappointed not to make the sport’s first Olympic team, he said he’s very confident that the contingent of slopestyle skiers will represent the very best the exciting sport has to offer.
“I think those guys will represent us well,” he said. “It’s not just about putting down one run that will win. Whether you’re in a contest or alone on a course, it’s about putting together your dream run. It’s about putting down tricks you never thought you could do in a row.”
He said the reason freeskiing has a camaraderie that a lot of elite sports lack is because competition is only one aspect of the sport — and to most, not the most important part.
”It’s that happy feeling that you have at the end of a great run,” he said. “It’s seeing your friends do well. It’s sharing in that.”
Athletes don’t stay within the confines of a national team or their home country’s program. They are one group, cheering for everyone to find that perfect, beautiful run. They help each other out. They share secrets. They share innovations.
That’s one of the reasons the death of Candian freeskier Sarah Burke in 2012 was so devastating to athletes of all countries.
“She was an icon, a role model, a beautiful human being,” said Wallisch of the trailblazer who died after a fall at the Park City Mountain Resort where she was training. “We’re a tight-knit community. We travel together, compete together, ski together, party together.”
While his friends and fellow freeskiers head to Russia for the first Olympic competition, Wallisch will undergo surgery to repair his knee and turn his attention to filming. In fact, he just finished a film with North Face called "Skier's Discretion."
Goepper and Christensen said they will approach the Olympics the same way they approach any other run.
“I’m trying not to pay attention to the media at the Olympics,” Goepper said. “I’m just going to try and be innovative, do unique and creative grabs.”Comment on this story
The Olympic Games, he said, “are not the holy grail of our sport. It’s a nice addition to our sport.”
Indeed, while most of the freeskiers say they’d love to win an Olympic medal, most say that they’re trying to do more than be better than the other competitors.
“My only competition,” Goepper said, “is myself.”
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