Tyler Walker skiing at the Copper Mountain World Cup
Tyler Walker is much more comfortable with speed than the average skier, but even one of Team USA’s top mono-skiers can’t go from zero to 70 miles per hour without working through the numbers in between.
That was true before a terrifying crash in the sitting downhill race at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games a year ago, and it’s true now as Walker continues to work his way back to podium finishes.
“It takes training and it takes going to races that are less scary first and slowly building up to that,” said Walker, 28, who is one of 17 athletes representing Team USA at the 2015 IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships in Panorama, British Columbia, beginning on Tuesday, March 3. “I’m going through a bigger challenge than most for obvious reasons because I’m getting over that mental fear that’s lingering. That progression is of huge importance to me. It’s been harder and more difficult than I’m used to.”
The U.S. Paralympics alpine skiing and snowboard team has two sports psychologists that work with the athletes, high performance director Kevin Jardine said. Both have good sports science backgrounds and were brought on in part because of the number of injuries the team suffered last season and in Sochi.
Walker miraculously didn’t break anything in last year’s crash, but he did suffer a concussion and had to be airlifted off the mountain. Jardine said he and Walker have had a lot of one-on-one conversations as well as a number of talks with the psychologists this season about how he’s feeling and the progression back to race speeds.
“One of the issues is that all the disciplines are somewhat related,” Jardine said. “They’re stepping stones for each other. Downhill is where his fear is at right now, but you take downhill out and the speed of the super-G, which can be as fast, becomes very intimidating. Then the giant slalom becomes intimidating.
“We’ve approached this season, through the summer, fall and winter so far, as let’s get comfortable in the downhill, where you used to be No. 1 in the world. Let’s not take that out because he’s still very comfortable in the super-G, and part of being competitive in super-G is getting through the fear in downhill.”
Walker competed in the downhill at an IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup event in Tignes, France, last month with a strategy. The Sochi experience creeped up on him “really bad," he said, and Jardine knew Walker was extremely nervous. They came up with a plan to ski the course at a slower speed that wouldn’t necessarily get him the win but would allow him to feel safe. Walker left his jacket on for the first run, using the drag to help slow him down, and chose a less aggressive line. On the second run, he still kept the jacket on but changed his line slightly.
He was in last place, but then returning home to race in Aspen, Colorado, Walker took off the jacket, skied more aggressively and found himself back on the podium in the downhill.
“I’m not at full speed yet for downhill, but I’m getting there,” said Walker, who has already had a number of wins this season in giant slalom and slalom. “It’s a process, and it takes time.”
Walker is still experimenting with what works best to prepare himself mentally to fly downhill at the speeds required to medal.
The fear is always there, he said, but some of the tools he uses to manage it include relaxation techniques, visualization, structured meditation and narrowing his focus little by little as the day goes on until he approaches the gate. He also tries to replace the fear with more positive emotions or even negative thoughts that he believes can help make the energy useful.
“I’ll try to replace fear with anger sometimes, using imagery of chopping down a tree or breaking down a door,” said the New Hampshire native. “Just start focusing on something that will allow me to get down the hill.”
For Walker, 60 miles per hour is about the speed where his brain starts to chatter in his ear, telling him that what he’s doing is a bad idea and that if he messes up it will end horribly. He knows the equipment under him is sound and his body knows what to do, it just takes a while sometimes to convince the brain.
“When I ski every once in a while there’s that strong desire for self-preservation that comes up, and that will create panic and stop me from doing the movements I know how to do to get down the run,” said Walker, who went to his first Paralympic Winter Games in 2006. “You have to convince yourself you’re not going to mess up very quickly and force your body to stop slowing you down and go faster with the assumption you’re going to make it, and that’s how you push yourself beyond that threshold.”