Earlier this winter, before David Wise became the hottest halfpipe skier on earth, he had a problem. It wasn't his skiing, although based on his results -- nothing higher than sixth place going into Winter X Games Aspen 2012 in January -- one could have assumed his skiing was off. In fact, the problem was in his head.
Wise, a 21-year-old from Reno, Nev., usually is able to keep his job in perspective, even on bad days. But at a critical juncture in his career, his underwhelming performances consumed him. His wife, Lexi, had given birth to their first child, a daughter named Nayeli, in October; the family spent Nayeli's formative months traveling to David's contests -- and watching him fall short of his goals. He'd also just been named to the first U.S. national halfpipe team, which brought new pressure in advance of the 2014 Olympics. If I don't get a good result soon, I'm going to be broke, he thought. What am I going to do? Am I going to make the U.S. team next year?
A self-described introvert, Wise entered "Quiet David Mode" and spent his days trying to determine, as he put it, "why I'm out here." For years he'd been known as one of the most talented pipe skiers in the world, but also one whose results rarely matched his potential. Finally, during a journaling session before Winter X Games, he came to a realization that would change the course of his career.
"I was just sitting there writing about the contests," Wise said. "I was bummed out about a few things, and then all of a sudden, I was like, holy crap, man, I'm not looking at this the right way. Look at all this stuff I just wrote: It's about this and that, the judges this, I didn't grab that. That's not skiing. That's not where I should be.
"Skiing," Wise continued, "what I get to do, what I'm blessed to do, is just an opportunity to show people how I think it should be done. So I wrote on my jacket going into X Games, 'Embrace the opportunity.' That gave me the right mentality. It didn't matter whether I won or lost; I was just really happy to show off in front of the biggest crowd our sport has."
In Aspen, Wise surprisingly earned the No. 1 qualifying score, then dominated the final, punctuating his win with a switch double cork 1080 to return the gold medal to America for the first time in four years. That night, U.S. halfpipe coach Andy Woods asked Wise, a known perfectionist, "How'd it feel to win the X Games with an A-minus run?" Wise replied: "Actually, it was more of a B-plus run to me."
This week at Winter X Games Tignes in France, Wise will attempt to make it four straight victories following his wins at the Dew Tour finale in February and the recent Mammoth Grand Prix. He will bring a new run to France, where he has a history of stumbling in the final. And his free-spirit approach will be the same as it's been since his epiphany, which means the needle of possibility is likely to be pushed once again.
Given the way Wise struggled in major events before this season, it's easy to overlook his impact on the sport. But the truth is that few explore the cutting edge more aggressively than he does. Back in the summer of 2009 in New Zealand, Wise became the first skier to land a double cork 1260 -- a maneuver that has since been copied by virtually all his rivals. You didn't hear Wise's name tied to the trick because he subsequently tore his ACL and sat out the season. Even when healthy last winter, he repeatedly placed high in qualifying rounds, then overthought his runs and wiped out in finals. "Mind games have played a big part in holding me back throughout my career," he said.
Nayeli's birth this past fall helped alleviate some of the frustration and initiated what he now refers to as his "revolution of the mind." Wise might be the only skier on tour who changes diapers and dodges milky vomit while breaking down video of his training runs, but he's never let his "double life," as Woods refers to it, affect his performance. If anything, Nayeli's presence helps him focus.
"Having a family brings you back to what matters," said Wise, a religious man who, along with Lexi, helps run the youth group at their Reno church. "What matters in life doesn't necessarily have to do with yourself, you know? The things that matter, really, are only the things you do for other people. So to be out there not just representing myself anymore, but actually representing my wife and my little girl, makes it more meaningful. It's not just David out there skiing for David; it's David out there skiing for the Wises. That has brought serious balance in my life."
Nevertheless, it's also left him feeling like a circus act at times, he said. "People just kind of look at me funny, like, 'What? You have a wife and a baby and you're 21? What's wrong with you?' They have a hard time understanding that in this industry. But I've brought Lexi and Nayeli to a lot of contests this year, and through the process of people getting to know Lexi and seeing the baby and how we get along, they've realized it's actually not that big a deal."
When it comes to competition, Wise -- who is also coached privately by Elana Chase -- likes the direction halfpipe skiing is taking. He applauds judges for rewarding subtle style tweaks as much as technical elements such as rotation and inversion. He is a purist in that sense, a skier who obsesses over minuscule details more than overall impression. "If you miss a grab or don't have an unnatural hit or a switch hit in your run, you shouldn't podium. That's his perspective," Woods said.
Wise's relentless zest for novelty was on display at the Snowbasin Dew Tour last month, just as it figures to be this week in France. He had already landed what proved to be the winning run, but instead of easing off the throttle during his second lap, he attempted a double cork 1440, which had never been landed in a halfpipe competition. He came up 10 degrees short and washed out, but his point had been made. More than victories, more than 95-point scores, Wise subscribes to a simpler measuring stick all his own.
"He doesn't want people to out-innovate him," Woods said. "He thinks the best skiers out there shouldn't be the ones copying other people; the best skiers should be the ones inventing tricks."