How Freestyle Skier Torin Yater-Wallace Came Back from the Brink of Death

comeback
BRECKENRIDGE, CO - DECEMBER 15: Torin Yater-Wallace #300 of the United States competes in the Men's Pro Ski Superpipe Final during Day 3 of the Dew Tour on December 15, 2017 in Breckenridge, Colorado.  Image via Matthew Stockman / Getty

In December, U.S. Olympian and five-time X Games medalist Torin Yater-Wallace found himself in tears after a movie. This wasn’t just a sniffle after a breakup; these were feelings, which the 22-year-old readily admits aren’t common for a man who launches himself tens of feet into the air while simultaneously inverting, spinning, and grabbing his skis. But Yater-Wallace wasn’t watching Finding Nemo or Good Will Hunting. He was watching his own life.

“It was really heavy—that’s the best word I can use to describe it,” Yater-Wallace, from his home base of Aspen, tells Men’s Journal. “I knew the story I was telling, and I knew that it was a big thing for me to open up about, but you forget a lot of things in your life, selectively, that took a toll on you.”

Back to Life, from Red Bull Media House and ESPN, chronicles Yater-Wallace’s life from childhood to the winning run of the Men’s Ski SuperPipe Final at the Oslo X Games in 2016. Written and directed by fellow X Games competitor Clayton Vila and produced by Matthew Brady, it premieres Sunday on the ABC show World of X Games, with concurrent streaming on RedBull.tv through the end of January. But its conceit is far from the typical “look at this amazing athlete.” Rather, it follows Yater-Wallace through a series of comebacks, even as he stands at the do-or-die edge of his latest.

Coming off his debut documentary, 2015’s For Lack of Better, Vila, himself a professional skier and 2016 X Games gold medalist, was actively looking for his next project. At that time, he and Yater-Wallace were peers and casual acquaintances, occasionally traveling together for sponsor projects, but it wasn’t until the next winter when he considered Yater-Wallace as a subject.

“What caught my eye was when he went into his paralysis and then came back and won the X Games a few months later,” Vila, 26, says. “That was a no-brainer that there’s a story there.”

You read that right: after spending 10 days in the hospital in medically induced paralysis because of a life-threatening infection, Yater-Wallace came back to gold three months later.

“The writing side of me said that could be the end of a film,” Vila says, “so I wanted to hear more about his life before that.”

Over the course of approximately 45 minutes, Yater-Wallace’s life is presented in chapters, each with a personal or family tragedy that, collectively, explodes the myth of skiing as a sport of perpetual bluebird skies and the uber-rich. As a young child, Yater-Wallace watched as his father was taken from the house in handcuffs, remaining in prison for much of his childhood. Without financial support, his family moved 10 times in two years, spending his multi-day contests sleeping in the back of their van.

Later, while gunning for a Team U.S.A. spot for the inaugural superpipe competition at the 2014 Sochi Games, he suffered first from a collapsed lung, then broken ribs, and finally the emotional trauma of his mother being diagnosed with cancer. Provisionally selected to the team, he washed out in the prelims, failing failed to advance to the finals.

In the late fall of 2015, a bacterial infection required Yater-Wallace to be put into a medically induced state of paralysis, tubes running into his liver, lungs, stomach, arteries and veins, and airway. A doctor in the film refers to it as “full life support,” and family members gathered by his bedside for the very real possibility of his death.

Instead, he made a full recovery, and in February 2016 won X Games Oslo.

“I’m not reaching out for sympathy,” he says. “This project is much more about empathy, hopefully giving some inspiration.”

But for Yater-Wallace, now is the time to look forward, and the next goal is locking down a Team U.S.A. spot for the PyeongChang Olympic Games in February, which would set up redemption for his Sochi showing. The U.S. team makes its first official selections on January 20, and he has one more event, the Mammoth Grand Prix, which starts January 17. Placing in the top three would likely guarantee his spot on the team.

Vila, who has come to count Yater-Wallace as a close friend after their work together, knows him as someone who rises again and again after a disappointment.

“Torin doesn’t back down from any challenge,” Vila says. “He faces fear head-on, the same way he faces adversity in life head-on.”

Part of facing adversity, according to Yater-Wallace, is letting go of the past—a feat easier said than done. “Any time things go bad, you think about that for way longer and way more in-depth than, say, winning an event,” he says.

But he has spent enough time thinking about Sochi, as he has about past injuries and contest losses, and now he’s focused on Mammoth, making the team, and PyeongChang. “For me, it’s less about the fear of doing bad,” he says. “It’s more just the motivation of wanting to showcase my skiing at 100% at the Olympics.”