Among the best professional skiers, Tom Wallisch is FREESKIER’s skier of the year for the second time in three years, beating out finalist Henrik Harlaut with over 27,000 votes cast online in November.
Last season, Wallisch landed on seven podiums and won two X Games medals—gold in Aspen and silver at Euro X. He took first at the Breckenridge and Killington Dew Tour stops, second at the Dew Tour stop at Snowbasin, and won the overall Dew Cup. He was also named 2012 Men’s Slopestyle World Champion and came in first in the AFP Slopestyle World Rankings.
In the next online voting matchup, it’s the epic mountains of Italy versus Wally’s 720 Cuban. Who gets your vote? Photo by Nate Abbott in Mottolino, Italy.
It was a season that would send some skiers on vacation to Hawaii by mid-March, but, even after sprinkling video shoots into his contest schedule, the day after he secured the Dew Tour overall, Wallisch hopped a 6 a.m. flight to Japan and spent the rest of the season filming. During one six-day trip to Anchorage, Alaska, with Level 1, the crew got only three to four hours of sleep per day.
“In my 13 years of making films, it was the most insane, sleepless, hectic week that I’ve ever witnessed,” says Level 1 founder Josh Berman. “And the stuff Tom wanted to do was so consequential. I thought, ‘Wow, there is nobody out there who would have this approach and put this all on the line at this point in the season.’”
On the third day of the trip, they shot a feature all afternoon, shot another at 4 a.m. and planned to shoot something off the roof of a fairly major building in downtown Anchorage that had to be done at the very moment of sunrise. After a couple of hours of sleep in the car, the alarms went off at 6:45 a.m. Everyone wondered whether they shouldn’t just call the shoot, but a sleep-deprived, pale, wiped-out Wallisch peeled his eyelids open and said, “Let’s do this.”
After almost a week of around-the-clock insanity, the crew took a red-eye from Anchorage to Reno (after an afternoon shoot), got in at 10 a.m, jumped in the car, drove to Mammoth, geared up and took the lift up to a Monster Energy team shoot.
A lot of skiers in Wallisch’s position, having accomplished so much in the sport, might look at skiing as a job, but Berman says that’s not how Wallisch views it. “He skis because he loves it. He works hard to get the mind-blowing shots because he wants to challenge himself. That’s really what sets him apart.”
Photo by Nate Abbott in Mottolino.
Wallisch isn’t a rock star; he’s the kid next door, and that’s just the person people want to root for. His mass appeal stems from fans relating to him. He comes from Pittsburgh, grew up skiing a tiny resort and never had a personal coach. Nothing was handed to him. Wallisch even looks normal. He’s not an intimidating jock. He’s not noticeably ripped or particularly tall. He doesn’t have the chiseled jaw line of a male model. He’s your average, everyday 25-year-old guy.
Even after one of the best competition seasons a slopestyle skier could dream of, Wallisch is still a personality kids can relate to. “He’s not super far out there,” adds Berman. “He doesn’t have a persona that scares people away. He’s very approachable.”
Wallisch was the one who made it clear that fame, fortune and success could be achieved in the ski industry through alternative channels. With 107,000 Facebook fans and 23,000 Twitter followers, Wallisch owns the online ski community. “I came onto the scene right as online edits, YouTube and Facebook were blowing up,” says Wallisch. “I’ve been doing Facebook since the beginning. We’ve been putting out edits for seven years and developing a good name on YouTube and Vimeo. I’ve had lots of time to develop a fan base on the Internet.”
Wallisch was in the right place at the right time, but his father, Mike, says it’s something beyond the timing. “He has a contagious love of skiing that he wants to share. Somehow that comes across in his videos.”
Wallisch’s fans have been supportive since the beginning. They knew him on Newschoolers before he even won the 2007 Superunknown contest, Level 1’s talent search. “The first time we saw that edit, it opened our eyes,” says Berman. “He displayed far and away the most diverse and technical skill set we had seen, period. He did every trick in the book, every rail combo we’d ever thought of.”
A #SOTY worthy rail gap to fakie, landing on the dark, icy side of the 9 Knights castle. Photo by Nate Abbott in Mottolino.
Wallisch was invited to Level 1’s park shoots that spring. He was 19. “We had a true step-over style jump at Copper, and every time he hit it, he did a different trick,” says Berman. “Nine times out of ten, it was a trick he hadn’t tried before, and he stomped it. It was the upper echelon of tricks at the time, not the stuff you just try and stomp the first time at a photoshoot on a big jump.” As a semi-unsponsored rookie, he scored three magazine cover shots from those spring shoots and a partial segment in Level 1’s Realtime, released in September 2007.
Since that movie, Tom has filmed segments with Field, Level 1, 4bi9, Stept and TGR, all while competing full time in dominant fashion. His footage isn’t filled with backcountry jumping, but overall the segments are comparable to those of most full-time film skiers, and his urban footage includes some of the biggest hammers ever captured on video. Kyle Decker, a former Level 1 cinematographer who has been working with Wallisch since 2006, says Wallisch is the same guy he shot six years ago, pre fame and fortune.
“I shot with him back when he was a poor college kid. Now, he’s a superstar skier who’s made a little money, but it hasn’t changed anything. If anything, I think he’s relaxed a little because he doesn’t have as much to prove. His lifestyle hasn’t changed—he lives the same way. He’s not buying really ridiculous things or acting different. He’s the same old Tom.”
This season, Wallisch is dedicating his filming efforts to a solo project with Decker. All his footage will go towards one edit, dropping on iTunes next summer. The model follows skateboarder Nyjah Huston’s Rise and Shine, an eight-minute video part that premiered on iTunes in 2011. “We work really well together and have the same goals and motivation,” says Decker. “He definitely makes me work twice as hard. It’s a project I’ve dreamt about doing. There are only so many skiers that it’s realistic to do something like this with. You need some budget to do it the way Tom wants to do it.”
Wallisch’s father says he’s always been energetic, fun loving and determined. “He saw something he loved and stuck with it,” says Mike. “I give all the credit to him. We just let him do what he wanted to do.” Sometimes that meant building a jump off the roof. Other times it was getting the ice rink to deliver ice shavings to their house. “Our record was 16 boxes of ice shavings to fill the backyard,” Mike adds.
In a last minute plea for votes, Wallisch went out after the first snow of the season and hit this arch to wall ride. A successful #SOTY campaign doesn’t count its votes til they’re hatched. Photo by Erik Seo_Level 1 in Salt Lake City, UT.
Wallisch was hard on his toys—his razor scooter got frequent air, his bike often skidded sideways and his trampoline was worn out from overuse. He learned to ski at Wisp, a 700-vertical-foot resort in Western Maryland near Deep Creek, where his family owned a townhome. After he’d mastered every run, he found his next challenge. “I wanted to find a way to scare myself and get a rush, and that became catching air, building jumps, jibbing everything and experimenting,” he says.
Wallisch was the ultimate weekend warrior, skiing Friday night through Sunday afternoon. He briefly joined the freeride program to ski more during the week, but he wasn’t a fan of having a coach. “The best coaches are my peers and the people I respect,” he says.
The East Coast made Wallisch a better skier. He credits the night skiing with allowing him to ski more, the terrain parks for their efficiency (shorter runs and chairlifts) and the conditions for making him work a little harder. “I always tell kids the only thing that will make you a better skier is to ski. The harder you’re working, the more you’re doing tricks, the more repetitions—that’s how you’re going to improve your style. It’s the person who spends the most time skiing.”