Interview by Matt Harvey — As seen in our 2011 February Issue.
The Pretzel Man. King of Afterbang. Tom Wallnuts. Call him what you want, Tom Wallisch is probably the best park skier in the world right now. Yet just three years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone other than the corest of the core who knew his name. He moved to Utah after graduating high school to attend U of U and won Level 1’s Superunknown video contest, earning him a coveted spot in the film crew’s roster and putting his name on the tip of the tongue of an entire generation of skiers. Last season, he won Euro X slope, the Utah Dew Tour slope stop, and the NZ Games slopestyle, among many other notable performances. Now, after counting almost 30,000 of your votes on freeskier.com, he is the Skier of the Year. He also has a lot to say about the sport, how he got here, and why you should never wear a hoodie that goes below your knees.
Congratulations, Tom, you are the skier of the year.
Yeah man! That’s what I like to hear!
How confident were you that you were going to win?
I definitely had a lot of confidence but I didn’t really know. There were a lot of other people who I would’ve voted for instead of myself, but I’m happy.
Let’s say you took yourself out of the equation, who would you have picked?
I’m definitely a big Candide fan and I was worried about going up against him because I know me and all of my roommates would have had voted for Candide over me. I think Jossi had one hell of a year and Sammy as well, on every level. Definitely some big things went down last year and a lot of people had big years. It could’ve gone any way.
Tell me about your season.
My season was pretty hectic. A ton of traveling. First year I ever competed in the X Games, which was a huge new thing for me. Pretty much the biggest contest there is for our sport, and being able to finally compete in that was one hell of an experience. And it was pretty much my first season competing in all the Dew Tours. It went way better than I could ever imagine and I did really well in a lot of different things, like winning the Dew Tour here in Utah and being able to celebrate with my friends and ski well in front of my home crowd. And going to Aspen and having my first X Games experience and having all the pressure and the insane media attention of that. Then with European X Games, riding one of the sickest, most strenuous, longest courses in my career and ending up doing well and winning an X Games medal was pretty much a dream come true. In between all that, being able to film segments that I’m pretty happy with, with Level 1 and 4bi9, having some cool segments to watch at the end of the year. Then to go to IF3 and see kids get stoked on that also, it’s just never ending. It’s definitely the best season I’ve ever had and I hope to keep it going from there.
I’m sure it helped your jumping game.
Oh yeah, my backcountry jump building skills are top notch now. The first five years of my ski career I didn’t even leave the bunny slope, just working on block building, block construction and building the best jumps to practice and warm up on.
I’ve heard people say you don’t take competing that seriously, and if you did, you’d win everything. How important are contest to you?
I definitely think competing is pretty important to my skiing and me. In the past, it was something I would be stoked on doing but not something I would focus on. But I find myself more and more into it, and more of my season is based off of it and I think about it more. Right now, early season, when going out to shoot hand rails, I think, “Maybe I’ll wear another layer for some more padding in case I tumble down these stairs.”
What do you like most about competing?
The reason I love competing is definitely not for the pressure, and definitely not for the money, it’s more or less just the fact that every slopestyle course is a really well made park. Instead of riding the same park all year, I get to ride different, extremely well-made parks and try to put together the hardest, most technical, yet stylish, run I can. The thing I like most about competing is the training days when you’re with all your friends and all the best skiers. Then I guess I may as well take the two runs at the end and see if I come out with a prize check.
How did you link up with Level 1 and become one of their go-to skiers?
I won Superunknown in spring of ‘07 and did some park shoots late season with them. I ended up doing pretty well, so I got on board for next season and got to shoot some handrails in Utah early the next season. From there, I started to get on the program full time and since then it’s my major film segment, the one I put the most time into it has the most footage of me. I love working with those guys. I’ve got a really cool thing going and am grateful for that contest that gave me the opportunity to work with them.
I competed in the Aspen Open that year and a judge wrote on his scoring sheet, “NO POLES” in big capital letters. I landed a pretty decent run and was scored a 38 out of 100 for a run that I landed, while another person fell twice in his run and got a 45 or something. Needless to say, I was a little frustrated. So after seeing that and realizing people couldn’t accept change, it definitely changed my thought process. It is kind of rollerblade style, if you think about it, but if you do it well and you look good skiing without poles, then more power to you. But ever since then I thought I’d just hold them in my hands because it makes everybody feel better and judge me normally.
I bet Scott is stoked on that, too.
Yeah Scott is stoked on it. I’ve definitely grown to really like having poles. You look like a silly penguin pushing around the lines. You gotta like, sidestep around like a penguin. It’s nice to have poles to stay standing up and to push around and to make real turns and actually ski sometimes instead of just sloppily skiing around like a monkey in the powder.
Not to mention it’s kind of hard to ski moguls without poles.
Oh yeah. And every day I warm up with a couple zipper lines, so…
Why do you love penguins so much?
I think penguins are just a really steezy animal. I just find them hilarious. They’re birds that can’t fly, yet they’re really good swimmers. Yet instead of swimming places, they walk, and walking is their slowest means of getting around. They’re just so steezy how they waddle and slide on snow and they just look like they’re having a blast all the time.
Maybe when you’re done skiing, you can study penguins.
I was thinking I would just join a research team and head down to Antarctica. Maybe have a rail jam down there. Me sliding a rail with a penguin sliding on its belly right next to me. That’s it. Ready to go.
I’m sure The North Face would be down on an Antarctica rail jam.
Oh yeah. Never stop exploring. That’s an article waiting to happen, we’ll talk more in the future.
Speaking of which, signing with TNF was pretty big news for you this year.
Yeah, really big news. Definitely a huge sponsor change and a really unique opportunity to get in with them this year. They’re making a big push this year with the X Games and tons of marketing towards the youth and the freestyle market. Definitely stoked on being able to be involved with such a quality company that makes such a top notch product for what we do, and they’re doing it the right way. I couldn’t be more stoked.
Do you ever feel the pressure when you’re riding the park and having all these kids expecting you to be on top of your game at all times?
Oh definitely. I feel it a lot whenever I’m not at home. When I’m at a new mountain or I’m not skiing with a ton of people I know. Kids are always watching and waiting and people are, obviously, impressed by watching the videos. They want to see the same kind of intensity everywhere in the park or wherever it is. And it’s hard to always throw down. But my philosophy is I’m going to do something. It might not to the most impressively hard trick, but I’m always working on something new or doing the same old tricks and working on my style. I just hope they enjoy watching whatever I do. I’d say it’s almost more pressure than doing a contest run. I’ve only done two laps in this park and kids are like, “Can you do this, that or the other thing?” And it’s like, “Yeah, give me a minute, we’re warming up here!” I don’t know, it’s good pressure.
They probably assume that you just show up and throw a switch dub 10.
Every time, man. No test hits, no warmups.
Pros don’t fall.
Never fallen, so don’t worry about that.
You are the afterbang king. Was this a conscious effort, or is it just how you ski?
That’s definitely a big issue, I guess. I try not to consciously think about it. I just like to ski as comfortably and smooth as possible and one of the things that goes along with that is solid landings. The thing I always try to do with my skiing is make it look as effortless and smooth as possible because that’s what I think is fun about it.
It’s kinda something associated with what I do, but good landings have been around forever. It’s definitely not something that I invented.
If there was one person who you were destined to ski like the rest of your life, who would it be?
This is a hard one. Definitely gotta say Hornbeck is pretty high up on my list because I’ve always admired him as a skier and love skiing with him and taking things from him and bringing them to my own skiing. In the competition world, Henrik Harlaut. He’s a kid who does things so unique and so well that he’s someone I always watch.
I really like TJ’s skiing a lot as well. He’s always been an inspiration, when I was younger, watching him compete before I was even involved in it. He was one of the people I’ve always enjoyed watching ski. He’s always so stoked on everything that’s going on or learning something new.
Do you have any advice for kids who want to be the next Pretzel Man?
Don’t wear hoodies that are past your knees because that’s just taking it too far. I see too much of that and it’s just wild. All the kids who wear big clothing because they see Henrik, Ahmet or myself wear big clothing, that’s awesome, but just keep it above the knees. Come on. You’re wearing a dress at that point.
Have you never worn a hoodie past your knees?
No. I mean, it’s okay if it stretches below your knees. But if it’s just sitting there and you can only see a foot of your pants, that’s taking it a little far.
Now that you’re a big superstar, have you had to deal with haters?
I’ve been surprised at how well I’ve done with the sponsor changes I’ve had in the past and picking up more mainstream corporate sponsors with Verizon and Monster. I think people like certain things and hate other things and there’s always going to be people who hate me for being famous for making YouTube videos or wearing tall tees, and there’s always going to be something for people to hate on. I think it’s just part of the sport. I’m just happy that people are still behind me and there’s as much love for me out there as there is.