Around this time two years ago, Olympic halfpipe skier Torin Yater-Wallace and girlfriend Sarah Hendrickson – one of the most decorated female ski jumpers in the world – shared a room at their dual rehab center.
He slept on a twin bed next to a couch where Sarah was in her parents’ living room at the Hendricksons’ home outside of Salt Lake City. The two shuffled about for weeks on end, watching TV (they can’t remember what) and trying to escape for short walks when they could. Her parents served as their nurses, Sarah recovering from a second major ACL surgery and Torin out of the hospital after a fluke life-threatening septic infection landed him in a medically-induced coma for 10 days.
They don’t want you to feel bad for them.
“We were both pretty helpless, but did our best to help each other out,” Yater-Wallace said in recalling the six weeks with the Hendricksons. She added: “It definitely brought us closer together, seeing each other at our lows.”
With the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 just over two months away, both Yater-Wallace and Hendrickson are healthy again and making a strong push to make their respective U.S. rosters.
That fall and winter of 2015, they hope, is their lowest of lows – the two world-class athletes faced with adversities no athlete (or human) wants to face, though it was Yater-Wallace who at one point was not only fighting for his career, but for his life, too.
Sent to the hospital in November 2015 after failing to diagnose what was making him feel unwell and causing shooting pain in his midsection, Yater-Wallace had an inflamed liver and gallbladder, with an abscess in his liver causing an infection.
But he didn’t find that out until he made a visit to the hospital as the mysterious pain persisted. Soon, he was hooked to a series of machines and had tubes snaking in an out of his body. Doctors would put Yater-Wallace into a medically-induced coma to fight the infection while also preparing his family for the worst. “He might not make it,” a nurse told Hendrickson alongside Yater-Wallace’s loved ones.
“It was pretty brutal,” Hendrickson remembered. “(But) just like everything else, you try and stay as positive as you can. Watching him regress for eight days… then he finally rebounded. He was in that room for 10 days and I think I slept there for five or six nights. Then, I had to go into knee surgery.”
While Hendrickson went under the knife for a second major ACL surgery in her career, Yater-Wallace began to improve and made the call to remove a tube from his liver, a move that gave him a 60-percent chance of being re-infected. He took it, and – for once – luck was on his side.
Then he and Hendrickson became living-room roommates.
It’s Not Easy Being Torin
Freestyle skiing fans are familiar with Yater-Wallace’s story, which began in a way at age 15, when he burst onto the scene as a rail-thin teenager at the 2011 Winter X Games in Europe, becoming just the third-youngest man to win a medal when he finished with bronze.
But while he had a whopping six X Games medals and a world championship silver heading into Sochi qualifying, Yater-Wallace needed to be put on the 2014 Olympic team as a coaches’ pick after suffering from a collapsed lung in the fall of 2013. He went into those Games as a media darling and many people’s choice to win gold. Instead, he would have one of the worst competitions of his senior career and not even make the final.
“There was more media hype about me winning the event than I could have imagined,” said Yater-Wallace, who at 22 years old speaks with the maturity of an athlete in his 30s. “It was a low blow. The Olympics is the pinnacle for us. Not doing well there was unfortunate.”
The sport’s teenage prodigy had turned in a dud at the Olympics, but it served as a learning-curve moment at the age of 18. In the fall of 2015 he had made the podium at three of the five competitions he entered, starting to build up ample momentum as the Olympics began to tick closer. Then, he got sick again.
“Through my entire life I’ve dealt with some pretty severe ups and downs and trials and tribulations, from family to medical and the list goes on and on,” Yater-Wallace said. “It’s taught me mentally to become a stronger person. After that hospital stint with the infection, it brings a whole new appreciation for everyday life.”
It’s part of the reason why Yater-Wallace has joined forces with a team to make a documentary about his struggles both on and off the snow, due out in January before the Olympics. It’s been a project that has taken him to do backcountry filming in Canada and Europe, a welcome distraction as the Olympic hype sets in again and Yater-Wallce looks to capitalize on the stage that let him down four years ago – now older and wiser since.
“(Competing) is stressful, nerve-wracking… it can emotionally and physically kill you,” he said. “But having these other avenues in skiing – filming (and traveling) – it just keeps my mind in a cool place. So then the whole year I’m not stressing about competing. I like going to events with a fresh mind and try to ski my best and not be worried about it all year.”
Out Of The Woods
What was worrying to everyone around Yater-Wallace was the 10 days he spent unresponsive, Hendrickson, his family and good friends left to wonder: Wait, what’s going to happen here?
“It was scary,” said Aaron Blunck, a fellow freestyle skier and longtime friend of Yater-Wallace. “We didn’t know how bad (it really was). We were thinking of going to Utah, considering a day trip or something. We didn’t know he was on his last limb.”
“Watching him in a hospital bed for eight days almost die is pretty much the worst thing you can possibly imagine for someone that you love,” Hendrickson added. “I would have five knee surgeries over watching him go through that again.”
But once Yater-Wallace turned that corner to health, things only got better. He made the (risky) decision to pull the tube out of his liver early and therefore was out of the hospital weeks earlier than thought (he would have had to have his gallbladder removed otherwise), and after rehabbing alongside Hendrickson at her family’s place he was back on the hill.
At his second event back, the X Games Oslo in February 2016, he won gold. He had been out of the hospital for just about two months.
“Looking back – even though I’ve won the X Games multiple times before that – that’s one of the best results I’ve ever had,” Yater-Wallace said about Oslo. “It meant a lot coming from an injury like that, which was similar to Sochi where I was coming off something instrumental and was just so brought down by it.”
This time he was lifted up, however, and in turn lifted those around him. Since early last year his lone focus has been training to avoid injury and stay healthy. Earlier this year, he won the Olympic test event in PyeongChang, the first of five qualifying stops for the U.S. team. He’d like to earn his place no questions asked this time around, and his result in Korea put him halfway to meeting the qualification criteria for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team, as up to three athletes with two podium results in the five events will be named to the team.
“He’s the GOAT of skiing in my eyes; he’s the Tom Brady of skiing,” a blunt Blunck said, himself also a 2014 Olympian. “He’s an inspiration. Watching him come back from these struggles and the injuries that he’s had – we almost lost him – it was the most inspirational thing I’ve ever witnessed. It was really cool to watch Torin make a comeback like that. I remember just thinking, ‘That is my boy!’ I was so proud of him and what he overcame.”
Yater-Wallace isn’t sure about his relationship with the Olympics: Freestyle skiing made its debut at the 2014 Games and his 26th-place finish in the qualifying portion of the halfpipe is something he knows isn’t reflective of his talent.
“The Olympics was never something I was around as a kid,” he explained. “It’s an addition, to be honest. Getting a medal there would be icing on the cake. It’s never something I set my mind out to do (before), but now that it’s here, it’s something I’ve set my mind to... I’m always very keen to be successful in every event I can.”
He pledges that he’s fit and healthy now, and has enjoyed the distraction of filming and working on the documentary. As of late September, he hadn’t been in the halfpipe since the Olympic test event in February, which is not that uncommon in his sport, instead training and keeping his skills up in other ways.
Life, in a lot of ways, has a new meaning: “Obviously I live a very fortunate life as a professional skier who can live off of it and travel the world,” he said. “But after I recovered from (this previous illness), daily life has given me an entirely new perspective: I have been able to appreciate everyone around me – my loved ones – and then appreciate what I get to do for a living.”
Yater-Wallace isn’t a lock for the team, with the U.S. men being the strongest program in the world. But the remaining four qualifying events this coming month and in January are just that to Torin: Events. He’s trying to be as even-keeled and procedural as possible.
Life has given him too many ups and downs already.
“It’s not just about what he’s overcome as an athlete but who he’s become as a person,” said Blunck. “He’s one of the most genuine and true guys. You will never hear him say something not truthful. It’s nice to have a friend like that who pushes me, and I think I push him, too. When we travel together we’re best friends; he’s like a brother to me.”
As well as a boyfriend and one-time rehab partner for Hendrickson, who is making her own Olympic push having been hampered at the 2014 Olympics with an injury, as well.
“We’ve definitely had some hard battles together, but I wouldn’t have anybody else besides him at my side,” Hendrickson said. “He understands, he’s the most caring, loving and positive person to be around. No matter what happens to him – which has been crazy and unlucky stuff – he just keeps his head up and he keeps going. That’s humbling for me and keeps me going. We believe that the hardest battles are for the strongest people: You, you… just keep going.”
And Yater-Wallace can also smile about it all now, too.
“I like to just ski as much as I can and be as active as possible” he said. “Honestly, some things you just can’t help. You know, like waking up with a deadly infection one day…”
It’s there that he laughs at himself, but that’s part of the process. He’s reflective about it all, which is in large part why he’s chosen to do the documentary.
“(My story) shows someone out there that even if they’ve never put on skis, if they’re going through hard times in life, there’s another day and you have to believe in yourself.”
An entire sport is thankful Yater-Wallace did just that.