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Two years ago, he clung to life, fighting a mystery illness. Now he could win Olympic gold

By: Adam Kilgore, The Washington Post
December 27, 2017 Updated: December 27, 2017 at 7:53 am
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Torin Yater-Wallace is fully healthy heading into the Winter Olympics after a mysterious infection threatened his life. (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

PARK CITY, Utah — During the 10 days he spent near death, Torin Yater-Wallace had recurring dreams he still cannot explain. In one, he flew to 10 different states, strapped to a gurney with doctors fluttering around him and cords hooked to his body, like an episode of “House,” but on airplanes. In another dream, Yater-Wallace saw himself stored in the freezer freight of a train, to keep his body temperature controlled. His thoughts, he recalled later, were crazy.

Yater-Wallace, one of the best freestyle skiers in the world, woke up one morning at the end of 2015 feeling sick. He shrugged it off and went skiing. Days later, he arrived at the University of Utah hospital via airlift and was put in a medically induced coma, his lungs choked with fluid and his liver assaulted by an abscess. The illness turned out to be a rare bacterial infection, missed during several initial diagnoses. Doctors at one point told his mother and girlfriend to inform other loved ones they should make travel arrangements, in case Yater-Wallace did not survive.

Yater-Wallace, shown this month, had his path to Sochi disrupted when a dry-needling treatment in 2013 accidentally punctured his lung. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) 

As he surveys the path that will probably lead to PyeongChang 2018, his second Winter Olympics, Yater-Wallace views his near-death hospital stay as only a most recent calamity surmounted. Months before his teenaged breakout in the sport, Yater-Wallace slept on friends’ couches, the result of his father’s scam wine business going bust. Before the Sochi Games in 2014, a physician punctured a hole in his lung during what should have been a routine dry-needling therapy.

“Medical things seem to just pop into my life and almost kill me all the time,” Yater-Wallace said. “I literally don’t know why.”

Yater-Wallace carries himself with the air of dude philosopher, a 22-year-old adept at extolling the virtue of an Egg McGriddle or the power of companionship from his girlfriend, Sarah Hendrickson, an Olympic hopeful in the ski jump, who spent five nights sleeping beside him while he rested in a coma. He recounts the harrowing details of his near-death experience in serene tones, coolness gained from a life of jumping on skis 15 feet in the air and spinning 1,400 degrees. He processes consequences without fear.

Since his teens, Yater-Wallace has been, among peers, perhaps the world’s most revered freestyle skier. “An icon of the sport, a deity in our sport,” said his coach, Elena Chase. He skis with uncommon aggression and grace. When he drops into the halfpipe, even on practice runs, rivals stop to watch.

Yater-Wallace is “an icon of the sport, a deity in our sport,” according to his coach, Elena Chase. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) 

“He is hands-down the best competitor in my eyes,” said freestyle skier Aaron Blunck, a close friend. “The kid could not land a training run all day, he could be in pain, he could be dealing with a bunch of stuff. But when it comes down to it, he sets his eyes on the pipe and just goes for it. He’s always my favorite guy to watch ski halfpipes, ski jumps, powder — anything. He’s my favorite skier. He’s just the competitor at heart. He won’t ever show it off the hill. But on the hill, you see it in his eyes.”

Even to those closest to him who lived through the ordeal, Yater-Wallace’s week-plus on life support retains an air of surrealism. He had already endured hardships that would have broken other skiers. Now the skier who owned podiums since he was a boy had been felled again, this time by microscopic bacteria. How to process such human fragility and athletic genius intermingling in one person?

“Hey, that’s my whole entire life,” Yater-Wallace said. “Something people haven’t seen before.”

The hill ‘was his church’
At 14, Yater-Wallace entered the 2010 USASA Nationals, the nation’s top competition for amateur skiers and snowboarders. He was the youngest skier in both slopestyle and halfpipe, but he won them both, scoring a preposterous 9.73 in the halfpipe. Yater-Wallace used the $2,000 in prize money to help his mother, Stace, pay rent.

For the first decade of his life, Yater-Wallace grew up in a wealthy Aspen, Colo., home. His father, Ron Wallace, ran a successful wine futures business, Rare Fine Wines LLC, selling expensive wine that had yet to be bottled. Wallace became viewed as an industry expert. He bought a BMW and joined an opulent country club.

In the early- to mid-2000s, it unraveled, according to contemporary news reports. Customers stopped receiving wine they had paid for and alleged he had been running a Ponzi scheme, using payments for wine only to enrich himself. The first lawsuits came in 2003. The FBI ran a major crimes investigation. In 2005, Wallace pleaded guilty to counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and conducting an unlawful monetary transaction. He faced 70 years in prison.

Although he initially avoided jail, prosecutors ultimately sentenced Wallace to pay back $11 million, along with five years of probation and two of home detention. Wallace ended up bankrupt. In 2010, a judge sentenced him to nine months in federal prison and 27 months of supervised release for multiple violations of his probation. The case closed in 2011 with Wallace still owing creditors — who included major league pitcher Jamie Moyer and ESPN broadcaster Chris Fowler — more than $20 million.

As Wallace’s business spiraled, Stace did everything in her power to protect Yater-Wallace. He focused on his skiing even as their finances grew dire. He would move from house to house, his stuff constantly packed and unpacked. As he started winning as an early teen, his prize money would help make ends meet. He viewed it not as a burden but as a release.

“When he was on the hill, it was his church,” said Chase, who has known Yater-Wallace since he was 8. “Even just a fun powder day, he always showed up and appreciated skiing. He’s had a lot of adversity as an adult, too. Plus or minus, he’s had constant reminders his whole life and his whole career of appreciating skiing. When you’re on snow, it means everything is good.”

Yater-Wallace’s ascension continued. He stunned the skiing world by winning a silver at the 2011 X Games at 15, making him the youngest medalist in the event’s history. He was on a clear trajectory to contend for a gold medal at the Sochi Games.

Nothing about Yater-Wallace’s path, though, tends to be clear. Early in 2013, Yater-Wallace underwent a dry-needling treatment, a routine measure to alleviate soreness in his back. The therapist, Yater-Wallace said, drove the needle too deep and punctured his lung. He didn’t realize anything was wrong until he had trouble breathing the next day training on Copper Mountain. He rushed to the hospital and realized what had happened.

“Absolutely absurd,” Yater-Wallace said. “Had I not been [going] to the Olympics, there would have been a major lawsuit.”

In the first Olympic qualifying event, Yater-Wallace crashed, broke two ribs and collapsed the lung again. The recovery prevented him from entering other qualifying events. “Just having to watch everybody try to qualify, just knowing there’s a high chance of me not going, with a lot of hype to win,” Yater-Wallace said.

Coaches gave Yater-Wallace the fourth spot on the team, a discretionary selection despite not having competed for nearly a year, a nod to his reputation and past accomplishments. With diminished health, he finished 26th.

At least coming out of Sochi, he had regained full health. He set his sights on his season and X Games and made it a goal to perform his best at PyeongChang. He didn’t realize his physical traumas had just started.

Read the full story at The Washington Post.

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