By NICK CUNKELMAN
Standing at the base of Buttermilk Mountain and waiting for freshly-minted Winter X Games 15 Ski Superpipe silver medalist Torin Yater-Wallace to climb the podium is akin to calling for an encore at a Phish show in Burlington, Vermont. After all, Yater-Wallace is a born-and-bred Aspenite (he lives in nearby Basalt, CO), and at age 15 with sponsors like Armada, Smith, and Target, he has already burst onto the freeskiing scene before, well, bursting onto the scene. And yet among all the fans and lookers-on—many around Yater-Wallace’s age, dressed for a night of specatation—there stands a man in an orange jacket and pants, helmet on, boots strapped, and skis in hand, who, like Yater-Wallace, looks as if he just got off the pipe himself.
“I know Torin gave it his all,” says Aaron Anderson, Yater-Wallace’s first coach at the Aspen Valley Ski Club, “And after he crashed on his first run that was like money in the bank, because to watch Torin crash it’s like, he’s definitely not going to crash again.”
Yater-Wallace is just one of several X Games athletes to come out of the Aspen Valley Ski Club, or the AVSC, a non-profit youth skiing program based at Aspen Highlands which provides over 2,000 kids in the Roaring Fork Valley the opportunity to engage in winter sports. The AVSC offers all levels of instruction and training, from weekend recreation programs to high-level competition development. Following the lead of other locals like skiers Matt Walker and Anne Segal or snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, Yater-Wallace began his AVSC career at age 7 when, as a budding moguls skier, his mom Stace would take him to once-a-week sessions with the park and pipe team.
“Sure enough, his Mom shows up with this little pee-wee of a kid with the smallest twin tips we’d ever seen,” says Geoff Stump, head coach of AVSC’s freeride team. “It was like, where did you get those twin tips?”
At AVSC, the age cut-off for the older park and pipe team is 12, but by age 11, Yater-Wallace was officially being trained by the squad, which travels to competitions like the Dew Tour and Gatorade Free Flow Tour, and was “hitting the rails and killing it,” in the words of Stump. By age 12, Yater-Wallace was landing switch 540s, 720s, and 900s, and within the next year he stuck his first switch to cork. Now he stands as a Winter X Games medalist, and, some may say, the future of the sport.
“The precedent that Torin has set by example actually facilitates my job quite a bit,” says Anderson, who, like the other coaches, films training sessions for his skiers, many of whom like watching Torin’s videos from around their age as much as their own. “Motivation is always an aspect of training with these kids, and their motivation is that much higher.”
Anderson, who grew up as a racer in the Pennsylvania’s Poconos before heading out west for college and then switching to freestyle in the late 90s, currently coaches the AVSC’s development program, where kids train every weekend at Highlands in addition to a half-day after class two days per week. Aspen High School at the base of Highlands is so close to the mountain’s chairlift that the student-skiers essentially walk out of the classroom and onto the slope.
“Yeah, they’re pretty lucky,” Anderson says.
The AVSC, which also trains at Snowmass, is also currently building an “air-hill” at the base of Aspen complete with airbags, foam pits and trampolines to go along with its summertime water ramps. Stump, who started as the head coach in Aspen in 2002, emphasizes teaching consistent take-offs for well-tested body maneuvers. Amazingly, freeride park and pipe has the lowest injury rate of any discipline at the AVSC (including Nordic skiing) and club-wide, its programs have a far lower injury rate as compared to the national average.
“We have a little bit of a conservative approach in a go-for-it sport to make sure athletes are trying tricks they’re qualified for,” says Stump. “They learn training methods that help you stay in the game as opposed to sitting on the couch, and we try to keep it as much fun as we can—that’s the point.”
In addition to Yater-Wallace, several other AVSC athletes are budding within the program or already breaking onto the pro tour. In February, at the Free Flow Tour Finals at Snowbasin, Utah, 16-year old Aspen local and one of Yater-Wallace’s best friends Alex Ferreira won superpipe to earn an automatic spot at the first stop of next year’s Winter Dew Tour. (Yater-Wallace, who watched Ferreira from the top of the pipe, had just missed the cut-off at the FIS World Championships held in Park City earlier in the month.) Within the AVSC, however, skiers Joey Lang, 12, Gage Car, 13—who according to Stump can do rodeos and mistys with grabs that even Yater-Wallace wasn’t doing at that age—and Kenan McIntyre, 12, are all also on the rise.
“Torin kinda highlights what it is teaching my style and what I think training should be in terms of learning tricks and executing them in contests,” says Anderson. “It’s pretty important for most kids right now in this sport to have a coach.”
And, as the International Olympic Committee considers adding ski superpipe and slopestyle to its events, Stump, who saw the moguls evolution of the 70s and 80s, knows that with the Olympics comes a major shift in the structure of the sport. The FIS will set its regulations, national teams will form and train, and the judging will become more critical.
“The sport will survive and will be guided into the Olympics,” he said. “But like with everything, with more and more regulations, it changes things. The more rules, the more inaccessible it becomes to the kid on the street or who works all winter for his ticket.”
Yet the AVSC—which provides over $600,000 a year in subsidies and scholarships and is entirely donation-driven—emphasizes the character and opportunity given to its athletes as much as their performance.
“With Torin, we’re going to try to keep him grounded with all the hoopla in the next few years,” says Anderson. “The track he’s on is one he’s got to stay on for success and remain humble throughout the whole process. We want to be the front line of innovation with athletes going to the Olympics.”
Yet for Stump, who’s seen the trends in skiing and remains supportive of the Olympic dream, the sport will always, as Dr. Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, find a way.
“Lo and behold, some kids are going to be out in the backcountry and find something to do that’s a whole lot of fun,” he says. “And we’ll be back where we started again.”
Nick Cunkelman is a senior at Colby College in Waterville, ME who grew up skiing at Vermont’s Mad River Glen, a mere three-hour drive from his home in Acton, MA. His writing has appeared in The Colby Echo, The Jackson Hole News and Guide, and The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. For more photos, go to sport-write-shoot.tumblr.com.