David Wise has three consecutive gold medals in halfpipe at one of freeskiing’s premier events, X Games Aspen. Those medals make him a favorite to take home Olympic gold in Sochi when halfpipe skiing is included for the first time. Over the next hour, the father answers my questions as a veteran of media junkets. He loses himself in the moments of his ski memories and in contemplating what skiing a halfpipe means to him. Much like the rest of us, he loves skiing and would love to do well at the Olympics, but his goal is beyond those final scores.
One of the things that draws me to halfpipe is that it’s so in your face, it’s so intense. It’s one landing to one takeoff in almost the same motion. When you see a really good halfpipe rider, they land on edge and never bother to change edges, and that’s what makes you go really big. At the same time, you have this apex. When you’re skiing big lines or hitting jumps, you’re always moving forward, no matter how much air you catch. In the halfpipe, you have this moment of true weightlessness that I haven’t experienced in anything else I’ve ever done. That is the time, when I set the rotation perfectly, I can tweak the grab into next week. It just feels so good. Going big is mandatory and being smooth is mandatory, but if I was to take off dragging a hand and hold the grab the whole way, people would think it was cool. That’s the freedom of what freeskiing is.
I always thought I was going to get married late. I realize now, being a father, that growing up I was always watching my dad and thinking what things I would do to be a good dad and what things I respected about him. So without knowing it, I was always setting myself up for being a husband and father. The plan in my life—it was always that I’m going to ski as hard as I can until I’m old and broken, and then I’ll get married. It never even crossed my mind. But then I found the right girl, and it changed my whole perspective. I found somebody who added more to my life than I thought anybody else ever could, so I was like, what’s the point of waiting?
It’s definitely become an advantage. Just
EVEN AT A YOUNG AGE, DO YOU THINK THE STEADYING INFLUENCE OF HAVING A FAMILY IS AN ADVANTAGE TO YOU?
IS THERE SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR UPBRINGING THAT MADE IT FEEL NATURAL FOR YOU TO MAKE THAT BIG LEAP TO GET MARRIED AT 20 AND HAVE A KID?
It was honestly CR and Candide, that year that they just decided to go 10 feet higher than everybody else. All of a sudden, this wall that everybody had been hitting was smashed. You could go as high as you wanted and that was something unreal for me to see. That appealed to me, this no-limits part of the sport.
CR was the first pro I ever met in the flesh. Growing up in Tahoe, he was such a big role model. He would ski up to you, and he was such a humble guy. I actually got to know CR more after his brain injury. He spent a lot of time after his injury with my coach, Clay Beck, and on the trampolines and stuff. It was this crazy experience for me. I think for him, it was a little intimidating because I was doing double flips, and he was trying to learn how to do backflips and 360s again. It was cool to see his perseverance through all that. He wasn’t so prideful that he couldn’t come out and humble himself and do 360s on the trampoline with me, some young, up-and-comer kid. He’s become more and more of a hero to me just through every experience I’ve had being around him, being close to him, knowing his family and his legacy.
I grew up in a skiing family for sure. My dad ski raced in college. My mom was a skier. My sisters were three and a half years older than me and already shredding around. My whole life I was just chasing them. When I was young, I was ski racing, and so were they. They were always just enough older than me to be a little bit faster. I think it was a good thing because they pushed me to another level. Instead of competing with guys in my own age group, I was just competing with my sisters who were so much better than me.
It was in the blood for me. I liked to jump off stuff; I liked to fly through the air. I wasn’t really scared of pain. I wasn’t scared of injury. I was just pushing the limits always. I think it was something that my dad knew was coming all
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FAMILY GROWING UP.
SO HOW DID THE TRANSITION FROM RACING TO FREESKIING HAPPEN?
CR ALSO GREW UP IN TAHOE, LIKE YOU, AND WAS A ROLE MODEL TO SO MANY SKIERS AROUND THE WORLD. HOW DID HE INFLUENCE YOU?
It’s scary as hell anytime before March, when it’s icy, and then after that it isn’t.
I make the leap by listening to music and not thinking about it. You put the music on and you’re pumped up about the song you’re listening to and you’re not scared and you’re pumping [the transition] hard with a fast-beat song.
I enjoy the technique because once you’ve got pipe skiing down and transition skiing and pumping right, then the parts in the air are easy. A lot of it has to do with between the walls, you know? You gotta grow up and learn to ski, be in the front of your boots and have edge control. I like the style a lot. I think it’s kind of hard to have style in pipe compared to in slope because there’s so much going on. I’m thinking about just trying to stay alive. It’s so quick and hectic.
I think all my skiing outside the pipe just helps with everything—learning just skiing and learning new tricks on jumps and then I can bring that over into the pipe. I’d much rather learn a trick on a jump and then progress to the pipe ’cause if you’re on a jump and you mess up your pop, you can still make it to the landing and wash out or something. But if you mess up the slightest bit of your takeoff in the pipe, you can be completely screwed. I don’t think it’s a disadvantage at all. I think I have more fun, and it just kind of adds to the style factor and bringing a bit of everything into the pipe. It’s pretty boring to just be doing one thing.
It was a crazy place to grow up, but I think it was the best place I could’ve grown up. I definitely wasn’t one of the richest kids; I was getting scholarships. It’s a safe little community, and there’s tons of skiing going on. The whole community is so involved around skiing, with four super, super good mountains, a ski club and X Games. Watching that live every year definitely gave me inspiration to be competing where I’m at today. I got to just skip school to watch X Games finals. I’m sure not every kid gets to do that. It was a daytime pipe finals. They had bleachers at the bottom of the pipe to watch. I think it was the year of Candide [Thovex] and CR [Johnson] going insanely big. I think growing up there set me up for success; it surrounded me with all the things I needed to start a freeskiing career.
I was pretty young when freeskiing was really booming. I was really looking up to the sport in general. I wasn’t pointing out anybody. I
would watch movies and see certain tricks and be inspired by the tricks people were doing, then go out and try those tricks. Peter Olenick, I definitely had some influence from him because he was the hometown hero, and I got to see him skiing at my mountains. I was kind of watching everybody though—Tanner [Hall], Simon [Dumont], Vincent Dorion.
My first coach was Jamie Lawson, when I was seven. I joined the mogul team at Aspen Valley Ski Club. I think I learned my first 540 that year, ’cause he told me, “Go do it right now. We’re all doing something new today, and you’d better try this.” I went and sent it. It was on Buttermilk and I remember that day. I remember so many things he taught me, just that one year. I was so drawn to learning tricks and it was so fun. Nothing was more fun at the time, just getting on the mountain and learning a new trick. I remember doing my first event with them, but competing, that was never the first thing in my head. I just wanted to do tricks. Tricks were cool.
Quite frankly, I don’t even know what the Olympics mean to me. It’s like, so much hype around this year and all this stuff. It’s just crazy. It’s so hectic and so much is going on. To me, it’s almost that I can’t wait ’til it’s done. It’s going to be dope, it’s going to be cool, probably, and a whole new experience. At the same time, I can’t wait to just do my thing.
There’s a time when competing is taking over your whole life, and it screws with your head and it’s nice to get a break.
It would mean a lot to me to win, not even on the fact that it’s the Olympics or beating the other people or stuff like that. It’s the fact of dealing with that kind of mental pressure. These days, of course, there are a few outlier tricks and runs, but for the most part, all of these pro skiers are at the same level of pipe skiing. The mental game is the biggest part of it. That stuff can screw with your head. With all the build up, it would mean a lot to know that I have the skill and the mental skill for competition. People see it, especially if you’re watching an event or anything to do with sports, and somebody you care about or are really hoping to win is in a tough situation, you can feel it in your nerves watching the TV. But when you’re that person competing, it’s an unexplainable feeling how nerves come into play at moments like that. It’s something I never would have expected when I was younger to come into freeskiing.
The coaching thing [in freestyle] was simple because I’d grown up being coached my whole life in racing. That was a big thing for my dad. He was like, “I’ll let you try this. I support everything you want to do, but I’m not going to let you just go out there and huck yourself on the mountain. I want you to do it safe and in a good environment.” Clay Beck came to Reno and met my family, smoothed things over with my parents. So I joined the Alpine Meadows freestyle team, and he was my coach up until 2008, when he died in a small-plane crash.
As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, the less coaching I really need. I’ve been doing the sport long enough—as long as I have video, I can see what I’m doing wrong for myself. With the US Ski Team, with [halfpipe coach] Andy Woods, we mostly just talk strategy. It’s kind of come full circle from starting out at 12, never having had any freestyle coaching whatsoever. So Clay was teaching me how to walk again basically. I skied moguls, and I was so bad. I wanted to be good, but I would just smash down the moguls on the tails of my skis, totally out of control. Going from there to where I’m at now has been a pretty big step.
Clay was always more impressed by who you were as a person than what you could do on a pair of skis. I’ve tried to do honor to his legacy as best I could, going through the process of becoming pro, winning my first X Games and trying to keep a cool head about the whole thing. While it’s sad not to have him there, I think that he would have a lot of respect for the way that I’ve done things, so it’s just an honor to be representing him there.
It’s unreal to think about that side of the Olympics. Right now, I’m just focusing on each moment. If you get too caught up in thinking about the future or what it’ll be like or what you’re going to do then, you forget about what you’re doing right here, right now. I’ve learned through my competition experience that the more grounded you stay, the more tied to this moment you are, the better you’re going to perform right now. It’s just a dream that’s there, and if I achieve it, then I’ll go from there.
I don’t know. Ask me on that day. I’ve gotten second place a few times, and I’ve been
disappointed those times because I’ve felt like either I didn’t get the recognition I deserved or I felt like I didn’t represent myself well enough. I would not be disappointed in an Olympic silver medal. It would be crazy to be disappointed in that. But coming down to the contest and my performance, I might be disappointed. I might say, “Man, I just didn’t get everything I wanted to get,” or “Man, he killed it so much harder than I did, how did I let that happen?”
Yeah. You have to be true to your roots. X Games is a huge part of freeskiing. If we never got in the X Games, if the X Games never supported us, then pipe skiing wouldn’t be at the level it is. It’s a sign of respect to compete at an event that makes a big stage for us.
I think that everything is a challenge and maybe that’s where my contentment comes from, the fact that things are not easy.
Skiing is not easy. Learning new tricks is not easy. Being a good husband and a dad while traveling is not easy. Managing sponsors and media obligations—none of it is easy. I feel like God doesn’t give you more than you are capable of handling. It is easy to get overwhelmed if you look at it from a broad perspective, but if you look at things one at a time, then it’s like, ‘Well, I’m just going to accomplish that one thing and then move on to the next thing.’ I do get frustrated, of course. The older I get and the wiser I am, the less I let frustration overtake me because as soon as you let that happen, you’re not accomplishing anything, you’re just bogging yourself down with more worry. It’s been a learning experience of spending time overthinking competitions and this, that and the other thing. The times that I just let go and trust it are the times when I’ve really accomplished the most.
I don’t really know. It would depend on who I got second to. Some people’s mindset of the sport isn’t mine. It’d be dope to see someone I think is dope win. I’d like to see Bone [Justin Dorey] win; I’d be stoked if I got second to Bone. Simon—a lot of the dudes. If Joffrey [Pollet-Villard] won, if he was there, I don’t know if he’s still a contender, but that’d be sick.
I think it would be cool to involve something like that, but it’s such a grey area with what people’s perception of style is or if they think [a certain] trick looks cool. But that’s also just a personal thing and an OCD thing. I’ve got to have my tricks looking good. Even if I landed a run and did well, even if I won, I’d still be looking at my run and think, “Shit, that looked so lame, I didn’t hold that grab very long.” Even though I won, I’d wish I had done it better. It’s really a personal thing. I get mad at myself.
My favorite trick in a halfpipe might be just a cork 5 with whatever grab. Just that weightless feeling, in comparison to other tricks in the pipe where you’re kind of lost and you can’t see, in a cork 5, if you go big and you’re at your apex, you feel like you’re defying gravity. Sometimes an alley-oop flat 5 too. The feeling of going big and that super slow rotation, but that apex and just holding your grab and catching transition perfectly is indescribable. On jumps, a cork 7 blunt is always a go to. I’m always perfecting that trick. Keep trying to get the blunt better or arc your body different or carve a little more.
I think a lot of people could beat me. I don’t think I’m the best skier in the world. I kind of think Justin Dorey’s probably got the biggest bag of tricks. I think he could possibly be claimed to be one of the best, if there is a best halfpipe skier in the world. It’s one thing to be
good at competing and have a run that beats a lot of people, but to actually be someone who’s mastered the sport ’cause you’ve done almost every trick, both ways, and you can start adding every different grab to all the tricks you have, that’s so insane. I’m definitely not there with all the tricks. Switch leftside, I suck at it. Left double 12 sounds like the shittiest feeling in the world. It doesn’t sound fun to try. I put my run together and sometimes happen to be pretty consistent with it.
Maybe I wasn't doing well at all the competitions since I was 7 years old, but it’s given me time and practice in a lot of competitions, so I have a lot of experience with being in that position of having to put it all on the line right there. Like I said before, music is such a big inspiration in my career. That note of putting myself outside of the competition, putting myself in a different mindset. I’m trying to not listen to anything going on in my real life, just listen to what’s in my headphones. I just breathe in and be quiet and use that in my skiing.
I think it’s pretty easy. You can see, regardless of the results from the last couple years, that it comes down to what each rider has. Whether they can incorporate not only technicality and amplitude but also style. It’s a limited number of guys who can do that, go really big, do hard tricks and still add this freeskiing aspect of style to the sport. It's Torin Yater-Wallace, Mike Riddle, Justin Dorey, Kevin Rolland— that’s pretty much it. Did I forget anybody? There’s a couple wildcards like Gus [Kenworthy]. Jossi [Wells], if he decides to be motivated, has the ability. There’s definitely some wild cards, and I’m not counting them out.
Torin has this unbelievable ability to always keep me on my toes. It’s fun and I feel honored to be riding with somebody so talented. Never
in my life have I been the kid who was so talented that things just fell into place. And not necessarily that that’s been the way his life has been, but every new thing I learn, every new thing I accomplish, he’s just, “Oh yeah, that’s how you do that.” Then he goes and does it. I put months and years of thought into it, and everything is hard work and grueling through it and learning. He just has this fresh, young approach to the sport. He just enjoys it. He doesn’t overthink it. It’s really cool to have the kind of yin-yang effect of Torin versus Wise. I have my style. He has his style. If you looked at both our runs side by side, they’re so incredibly different and yet they still score incredibly similarly. Here’s Torin’s style of skiing and here’s my style of skiing and the judges kind of think equally of them. That’s cool. I know that as long as that kid’s around, I’m not going to be able to sit back and take a breather.
That’s one of the things I think about a lot with the Olympics. Everybody’s got a different opinion about it, and my two cents is that it comes down to the athletes who are there. That’s my biggest reason for wanting to get myself there. Call it professional pride, but I think I can represent our sport pretty well on that world stage. I’m not going to go there and do six doubles. I think that the style and freedom of our sport is just as important as progressing our sport and doing technical tricks. Skiing’s made me who I am, it’s been a part of my life since I was 3 years old. To go there and represent something that I feel ties so personally into who I am is going to be a pretty wild experience and something that I take pretty seriously.
I don’t really talk to him at the top of the pipe. I don’t really talk to anybody, I just try to stay in my own zone. That’s one thing I do that helps my composure, just sticking to myself, maybe talk to my coach about what I could do. And watching other people’s runs, I never know what to do, if it freaks me out. Should I know how everyone’s doing? That just gets stuff going in your head, and I kind of not watch and chill out.
Dave, obviously, is really good at skiing. Bone. I think all those French dudes get really into it. Thomas [Krief], Ben [Valentin], Kevin [Rolland]. Marge [Matt Margetts] has been skiing well recently. Riddle is someone who maybe isn’t the first person you think about, then you consider, but he has really good results. The whole field, so many people are at equal skill levels these days. It really comes down to those people you see in competitions all the time doing well because they’re mentally strong.
I’m literally the least serious person. I kind of laugh sometimes when I see people being serious about freeskiing. It’s all just kind of a joke. [David] probably trains hard at the gym. The last time I was at a gym was like a year and a half ago. I ski. I do my own thing. I like to chill out and have fun with all my ski friends and hang. I guess I’d like people to know I’m pretty laid back, and I’m not serious about a lot of stuff.
I mean, it kind of sucks that I can’t go back and defend, but at the same time, it’s also pretty cool that I won the last one. It feels good and it takes a little pressure off because last year was pretty scary. That was definitely my biggest achievement. Consistency is the hardest, scariest thing. I always gotta do X Games. I think I medaled at every one I’ve done so far. You want to have fun at X Games, but that scares me. It’s not even pressure from other people. I’ve built it up in my own mind. I have expectations of myself. I can’t help it, that’s how my mind works.
Maybe there is. We go back and forth pretty often. I don’t know if it’s going to be some Tanner and Simon shit. Some people might call it that.
I definitely was watching X Games all those years and kind of hoping for a different person each year. I never wanted one person [to win].
Maybe it was. A lot of that rivalry—ESPN makes up a cool story for X Games. They’re kind of ridiculous. Maybe it made some fans stoked. I’m not the most competitive person. I guess at skiing I am ’cause it’s something I really care about and it’s something I know I can succeed in.
It’s crazy like that. With any action sport industry, there’s a decent amount of partying. When I’m in Europe or pretty much any country that isn’t the US, I’m able to drink and go out to the parties after the events like an adult. The whole time I’m living like an adult, traveling alone throughout the world. I’ve had to mature a lot quicker than kids my age. I come back to the States, and I’m a little kid here. It’s something not a lot of people get to see, especially my friends. They’re like, “I want to get out of Aspen. It’s such a small town.” It’s such a bubble there. And I really do, I get to see the world. Not a lot of people can relate to the kind of lifestyle I live.
I do. It’s something cool to think about: What would I like to be remembered as? I’d like to be remembered as somebody who obviously has a big career in competing, but at the same time I’d really like to be known for being able to shred in all aspects of skiing. I think it’s cool to be able to do all of it.