Please forgive him, but, two events into the qualifying process for the new Olympic sport of slopestyle skiing, Tom Wallisch still doesn’t seem to get it.
He is competing this week in the U.S. Grand Prix in Breckenridge, Colo., the third of five events that will determine which skiers make the team, and all he can talk about is how much fun it is.
Obviously, Wallisch is a rookie at this whole Olympics thing. Doesn’t he know there’s supposed to be all these nerves and constant stress, that he’s expected to evaluate the past four years based on whether or not he happens to perform to the best of his ability at these specific events?
Wallisch, one of the favorites to qualify for the Sochi Winter Games next month, currently is fourth in the qualifying standings among U.S. slopestyle skiers entering the final Friday in Breckenridge. Between this and the two events next week in Park City, Utah, he needs two top-three finishes to guarantee himself a spot — and, at the very least, a few top-three finishes among Americans to feel comfortable.
Of course, Wallisch, a graduate of Chartiers Valley High School, comes off as being plenty comfortable already — even on the brink of forging his Olympic fate.
“It’s the same way as it is every year,” Wallisch, 26, said. “You want to do well and put down a run, and every event is a chance to make a name for yourself. There’s always pressure when you’re at the top of the course and you’re doing these runs. I don’t think there’s any more or any less. Yeah, people want to go to the Olympics, and it’s a very cool opportunity, but it’s not the end-all, be-all in our sport.”
In slopestyle skiing — modeled after its more popular snowboarding equivalent — skiers are judged on tricks and how they use numerous rails and jumps to their advantage on a run. Until it debuts in Sochi, there will be some confusion about what the sport actually is and how much skill it takes to be one of the world’s best.
Perhaps that is why NBC Olympics host Bob Costas said Monday on the “Today” show with Matt Lauer, “I think the president of the IOC should be Johnny Knoxville. Because basically this stuff is just ‘Jackass’ stuff they invented and called an Olympic sport.’ ”
Wallisch, like most of the slopestyle skiing world, took offense to Costas comparing his sport to “Jackass,” a former MTV show which spawned movies that featured Knoxville and others participating in dangerous, crude stunts as low-brow humor. Wallisch tweeted from his account, @TWallisch, “#bobcostas showing how much he knows… #idiot.”
Wallisch didn’t grow up dreaming of being an Olympian; few of his competitors didn’t, either. So what? He just loved performing tricks while skiing with his family at Wisp Ski Resort in Maryland, and eventually had his father, Mike, put up rails in his backyard so he could practice various moves.
When Wallisch moved to Utah in 2006 to attend the University of Utah, he did it with an eye on honing his craft in the mountains, and the hope was he could eventually make the X Games. The crowning achievement of his skiing career came in 2012, when he won his first X Games gold medal, earning a score of 96.00 — the highest in the event’s eight-year history — on his final run.
In 2011, when the sport was added for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, he and his fellow competitors were ecstatic. They had made their names with viral YouTube videos or once a year at the X Games, and the Olympics would bring more attention and potentially a broader following to slopestyle skiing.
The exposure of the Olympics could present a financial boon for Wallisch, who already is sponsored by North Face, Scott, Monster, Verizon Wireless and Skull Candy among others.
Wallisch expects that there will be four spots for male slopestyle skiers as part of the 26-member U.S. freeskiing team, which also includes events in moguls, aerials, halfpipe and ski cross. He said there is flexibility in the process that is meant to bring as many legitimate medal contenders as possible, and Wallisch has proven himself to be a contender.
If things go just right in the next few weeks, Wallisch would make the team without having to unveil his best tricks, so that they will be surprising in Sochi.
“I think I’ve got some variety,” Wallisch said. “I’m trying to play it safe and save a lot of the bigger, better, crazier things for maybe the X Games or the Olympics, pull out all the stops when it finally really matters.”
Here is the schedule for TV coverage of qualifying rounds for the U.S. men’s and women’s slopestyle and half-pipe skiing teams:
•1 p.m. Sunday: Slopestyle finals, NBC; 9 p.m. Monday: Halfpipe finals, NBCSN
•2 a.m. Monday: Halfpipe finals, NBCSN; Midnight Jan. 26: Slopestyle finals, NBC
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.