In the opinion of Torin Yater-Wallace, the 18-year-old freeskiing prodigy who grew up near Aspen, Colo., the best halfpipe skiers in the world are all roughly equals -- except, in his words, for the mental aspect.
"Those moments when the lights are all bright and you're looking down the halfpipe and intimidated and thinking -- that's the hardest part of it all," he said. "That's the mental aspect and when it comes down to it, that's what really gets to people."
While he doesn't claim to know precisely why or how, a knack for delivering in clutch moments has been one of Yater-Wallace's most alluring qualities, basically since he announced himself as a major international contender at age 15, in 2011, when he became the youngest athlete to win a medal (a silver) at the winter X Games. He cracked the top three of the Association of Freeskiing Professionals' world rankings the next year, in 2012, and he hasn't left the top three since.
Recently, though, Yater-Wallace has been managing a new kind of decisive moment: an ongoing and quasi-bizarre injury crisis during the height of freeskiing's first Olympic-qualifying season.
As of January, Yater-Wallace hadn't been on his skis in more than a month. And roughly since his 18th birthday, on Dec. 2, he's been in and out of the hospital three times due to a twice-collapsed right lung -- once from a physical therapy session gone awry, a second time from a bad wreck during a halfpipe practice run that also left him with two fractured ribs. The right lung has recovered, he says, but pain from the ribs persists.
"Very sharp pain under my left rib cage area, around the spleen area? Anybody know anything about this ... " he posted on Twitter last week.
As a result of this continuing and maddening detour, the prelude period to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia -- where longtime X Games sports like ski halfpipe and slopestyle will make their Olympic debut, and where Yater-Wallace has long been forecast as a strong medal favorite -- has not gone the way Yater-Wallace might've imagined when he was a kid dreaming about his future in skiing. Instead, it has left him feeling anxious and uncertain and, frankly, kind of bummed out, he says.
"A lot of hectic stress and craziness going on around this one event, I just can't wait for it to be done. It's like 'The Hunger Games,'" he said, referring to Sochi.
In mid December, he tweeted: "I hate the word Sochi."
Sounding a brighter note, he added, "I'm just not good at not skiing. Hopefully soon at least I'll know when I can ski again."
Stace Yater-Wallace, Torin's mom, recognized some extraordinary qualities in her son early on.
"Did I think he'd go to the Olympics or X Games? Absolutely. Did I know when? Absolutely not. I always figured it'd take a few more years. It's all been pretty amazing," she said.
Yater-Wallace joined the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club when he was seven. Soon, Yater-Wallace, Mikey Schumacher and Alex Ferreira -- the other halfpipe skier from Aspen on the U.S. Freeskiing team -- became an inseparable trio, best friends to this day. The coaches called them "ATM," for Alex, Torin and Mikey, and by all accounts they skied more than your average ski-town youngsters. Quite a lot more.
After the chairlifts would stop running and Team ATM had to leave the club, they would often shift over to Alex or Mikey's yards nearby, where they'd work on building new jumps or rails to hit over and over again. This activity would sometimes go well into the night, because, as ATM knew well, rounding up surplus construction-site lighting is a cinch here in Glitter Gulch.
"There were people I went to school with who wouldn't ski on the weekend -- that was just a crazy concept to me," Yater-Wallace said. "To me, Aspen is all about skiing and from a young age I was into it. I was always trying to ski."
"They were extremely motivated," said Eric Knight, a longtime coach at Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club, referring to ATM. "I mean, they were doing this all day every day, but they weren't burning out because these were three best friends. Every day they were just out having fun together."
Freeskiing made perfect sense to a young Yater-Wallace. He says he can't distinguish some of his earliest memories about it, but they're intertwined with the local history of the winter X Games, which have been held at Buttermilk Mountain, near Aspen, since 2002.
"We'd come from school and watch [X Games] from the bleachers," Yater-Wallace said. "I was pretty young to actually know exactly what all the skiers' names were, but the sport itself was just so cool to me. I couldn't imagine anything cooler."
Yater-Wallace's passion for skiing was further fueled by something deeper, according to Mikey Schumacher, now a senior at Aspen High School.
"For Torin, I think the world was kind of an imperfect place when we were younger. Everything wasn't always as it should've been. He was not the richest kid and he always had to work for what he had," Schumacher said. "But with skiing, it was that perfect place for him, the one he wanted and the one he dreamed about. So now, when he's on the hill, he's still in that perfect place. He's not thinking about who's watching or what's at stake. No, he's thinking that this is what he loves to do and where he's happiest."
Yater-Wallace, for his part, would seem to agree.
"I guess the uniqueness of my skiing comes with the way I think about skiing," he said. "I hate being a follower, just a mimic of somebody else, and I hate the aspect of being a jock in a sport like this."
Yater-Wallace was cleared to ski again just before X Games Aspen 2014, and although he qualified for the finals, he pulled out just prior to the competition due to his injuries.
For now, though, he is just happy to be back doing what he loves.
"It's freeskiing, you know. It's like going skateboarding: Just get your stuff, get your equipment together, and just go out every day and do it for fun," he said. "Going to the gym isn't going to make you any better at skiing. You've just gotta go skiing all the time, and you've got to love it."