Tyler Walker: First X Games adaptive gold
Twenty Years, 20 Firsts celebrates the 20-year legacy of the X Games in action sports with a collection of 20 of the most iconic first-trick moments in X Games history. Between March and X Games Austin (June 5-8), XGames.com will roll out the top 20 firsts, including moments such as Travis Pastrana's groundbreaking double backflip and Shaun White's perfect SuperPipe score, and the stories behind them. Fans will be able to vote for their favorite moment starting on Thursday, May 8.
At the risk of sounding like a buzzkill or a puppet of semantics, Tyler Walker rejects the premise for his inclusion as part of "First" series. There's no disputing he took the gold when Mono Skier X officially debuted at X Games XI in Aspen, Colorado, in 2007. Moreover, everyone agrees the contest was won by Walker fair and square. The problem is he doesn't consider that particular race X's first Mono Skier event.
"I'm gonna say, we had a exhibition event (in 2005) and I did not win that one," points out the three-time X gold medalist. "I got second. You say I won 'the first,' but in my mind, that was also a legitimate race and my teammate Chris Devlin-Young, won that one. So in a way, I consider him to have won the first one."
Maybe Walker's just being modest. Or loyal to his friend. Or perhaps he's simply so competitive, a bridesmaid finish can't be easily brushed under the rug. Whatever the rationale, the conviction is sincere.
Having said that, Walker doesn't deny for a second the magnitude that 2007 gold medal had on his career, nor the accomplishment it represents. Nothing has been the same since, whether for the sport or Walker himself.
In retrospect, the race itself served as a prepping ground for negotiating change. To begin, the format was entirely different than anything Walker had experienced. Typically, he and his fellow competitors raced in individual flights, with times subsequently compared to determine a winner. Being pitted directly against his competitors in the same race admittedly made Walker self-conscious.
"Everything is on you," says Walker of his previous races. "You are responsible for you own well-being and your own success. When we did this event, all of a sudden I'm competing against three other people and not only do I want to win, but these guys are also my teammates and some of my friends. I've got to worry about their safety and my safety." "But I also don't want them to win. So I had to find a balance to that."
Insofar as making sure the balance included victory, Walker credits a good "power-to- weight ration," which helped spark his fast start. He was also perhaps the flight's most seasoned racer, which lent an invaluable edge. "There weren't a lot of mono skiers out there who had a lot of experience going off really big jumps successfully one after another. That was something I did all the time. Whenever I could get a break from training, I'd be in the park or finding jumps everywhere I could. I fly very well in the air. It's kind of instinctual."
Not that "instinctual" should be confused with "fearless."
About two-thirds of the way down the course, Walker sensed he was on the verge of winning, which in theory should have immediately boosted his confidence. However, this realization simultaneously underscored his proximity to the finish jump, which quite frankly, is one gargantuan kicker.
"That's always the biggest feature, and it's the biggest on purpose," concedes Walker. "It's the last of the race. It's where all the people are. It's where most of the cameras are. They want a good show. And I totally get that. But it's also huge. And it's scary. "We spend a lot of time analyzing the physics of it, and the course is designed to be run at full speed. If you run it at full speed, you will make the landing in most cases. But it's such a big jump, you're in the air for so long, that you're never really sure how it's going to play out."
Then again, conquering the unknown is at Walker's core. He first began skiing at age 6 on homemade equipment, a sled his dad fitted with cross country skis bolted underneath. ("Nothing you'd recognize as a mono ski.") His first U.S. Adaptive Alpine National Championship competition simultaneously marked his first downhill race, along with his first encounter with 70 mph speed. At X Games, Walker once again found himself relying on skills, knowledge and even gallows humor in the face of question marks.
"The most I could do was rely on instinct and then know if I went off at full speed, I would at least make the landing. And I would definitely make the finish line because even if I crashed in a crumpled heap, I would slide across it."
Happily, Walker came down to Earth without a hitch, crossing the finish line with ease to seize the gold. It was a moment for the X Games history books, with a brand new chapter of his own life written on the spot.
"When I got to the finish line, all of sudden there were thousands and thousands of people watching," recalls Walker. "Then I learned there were several million watching on TV. That blew me away. Right away, we were taken seriously, just like we were any other event at the X Games, which I was not initially expecting. Usually we have to kind of fight for that year after year.
"ESPN, right away, on live TV, was like, 'You guys gotta come check this out. This is why these guys are awesome. Screw disability. These guys are sending it over huge jumps. It's just awesome to watch.'"
"Because of the X Games, I found people in Kansas, or other disparate places of the U.S. that don't see skiing very often, or hardly know what snow is, they knew what X Games was and they recognized me from TV. That just doesn't happen for disabled athletes very often, if at all. That was way cool."