How a near-death experience gave Torin Yater-Wallace a new love for skiing

"That suffocating feeling is what I remember most. The feeling of going insane with 25 machines hooked up to me unable to move."

A few weeks ago, skier Torin Yater-Wallace dropped his 2015-2016 season edit on Vimeo, a 15-minute compilation of the young Aspen, Colorado-native hitting banger after banger in halfpipes and backcountry settings from Colorado to Chile.

On its own, that tidbit of information wouldn’t necessarily be newsworthy — there’s a seemingly endless amount of skiers in the world capable of producing a jaw-dropping season edit.

But what makes the seven-time X Games medalist’s edit so special is that it came very close to never being made: In November of 2015, Yater-Wallace came down with a mysterious infection in his gall bladder and liver so intense it nearly killed him, leaving him in medically induced paralysis for 10 days and confining him to a hospital room for nearly three months.

He came back from the illness in spectacular fashion, relearning to walk on his own just months prior to capturing gold in the SuperPipe at X Games Oslo 2016.

Now, having just celebrated his 21st birthday, Yater-Wallace says he has a new appreciation for life and the sport that was almost taken from him. He got on the phone with GrindTV to talk about getting a second chance following a freak medical accident.

Looking at your social postings, it seems like this edit meant something really special to you. Can you talk about how important it was for you to even be able to put together an edit after your medical scare?

As a long-time contest skier, something that’s always been important to me is putting out as many video parts as possible. And that’s not a small endeavor.

So when the season started, Matt (from Vital Films) and I were brainstorming about the best way to go through with making a season edit. We wanted to make it across the globe and have a lot of backcountry and street skiing parts, but then when the three-month medical ordeal happened it brought it all to a halt.

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But the whole time I was in the hospital I was talking to Matt about how we still wanted to make something for my friends and fans.I didn’t even get back on skis until the end of January, so we paid for it all out-of-pocket and just decided to try our best with a shortened season.

When it was done it turned out better than either of us could have expected, and that’s just really special to me.

Was getting back to make the edit the goal that gave you motivation to come back from the medical scare?

There were no goals. There were no schemes. The stepping stones of just regaining the strength to stand on my own, to taking a few steps on my own, to being able to walk down a hall while holding someone else’s hand, it was all so intense that having goals didn’t even come into my mind.

I didn’t even think about skiing again until late December when I was making progress in my therapy. All the other advances, like just being able to get my heart rate up in the gym on my own again, those were the positive things that kept me going.

Once I was finally back on skis, that’s when I said, “Okay, let’s get back to competing.”

What’s the one thing you remember most from the time in the hospital?

It all started because I had been sick for almost a month with flu-like symptoms, and had gone to maybe four or five doctors who all said, “Take this and you’ll feel better.” And I just kept getting worse, to the point where I went into the ER for the second time in violent pain unable to breathe.

That’s when it became serious, and I was admitted to an ER in Park City, Utah. And my last memory was trying my hardest to breathe in the ER on a gurney and not being able to. I felt like there was no hope.

Next thing I knew, I was waking up 9 or 10 days later completely baffled as to what was happening. After everything was explained to me, and having 25 different things — IVs and catheters and whatnot — attached to me it just felt suffocating. I was in really intense pain and couldn’t move without tearing something out of me.

That suffocating feeling is what I remember most. The feeling of going insane with 25 machines hooked up to me unable to move.

That, and the hopeless feeling that set in after every doctor stressed to me just how serious my situation was, and that had this happened to me when I was 20 years older, it could have easily killed me. That’s hard to digest, because there’s nothing I could have done to prevent it.

I know you’ve only just turned 21, but do you think the incident gave you a larger perspective on life?

One hundred percent. The biggest learning lesson from this experience is to remember that I could have something I love taken overnight. It’s the reality that something could force me into a hospital bed tomorrow for months at a time.

It’s really just made me appreciate everything I have in life, and I think that reflected in my skiing last year. All I could think about when I was stuck in that hospital bed was the feeling of freedom that going skiing and being back in the mountains gives me. That’s the overwhelming emotion I felt my first time back on skis — freedom.

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