PARK CITY, Utah — During the 10 days he spent near death, Torin Yater-Wallace had recurring dreams he still cannot explain. In one, he flew to 10 different states, strapped to a gurney with doctors fluttering around him and cords hooked to his body, like an episode of “House,” but on airplanes. In another dream, Yater-Wallace saw himself stored in the freezer freight of a train, to keep his body temperature controlled. His thoughts, he recalled later, were crazy.
Yater-Wallace, one of the best freestyle skiers in the world, woke up one morning at the end of 2015 feeling sick. He shrugged it off and went skiing. Days later, he arrived at the University of Utah hospital via airlift and was put in a medically induced coma, his lungs choked with fluid and his liver assaulted by an abscess. The illness turned out to be a rare bacterial infection, missed during several initial diagnoses. Doctors at one point told his mother and girlfriend to inform other loved ones they should make travel arrangements, in case Yater-Wallace did not survive.
As he surveys the path that will probably lead to PyeongChang 2018, his second Winter Olympics, Yater-Wallace views his near-death hospital stay as only a most recent calamity surmounted. Months before his teenaged breakout in the sport, Yater-Wallace slept on friends’ couches, the result of his father’s scam wine business going bust. Before the Sochi Games in 2014, a physical therapist punctured a hole in his lung during what should have been a routine dry-needling therapy.
“Medical things seem to just pop into my life and almost kill me all the time,” Yater-Wallace said. “I literally don’t know why.”
Yater-Wallace carries himself with the air of dude philosopher, a 22-year-old adept at extolling the virtue of an Egg McGriddle or the power of companionship from his girlfriend, Sarah Hendrickson, an Olympic hopeful in the ski jump, who spent five nights sleeping beside him while he rested in a coma. He recounts the harrowing details of his near-death experience in serene tones, coolness gained from a life of jumping on skis 15 feet in the air and spinning 1,400 degrees. He processes consequences without fear.
Since his teens, Yater-Wallace has been, among peers, perhaps the world’s most revered freestyle skier. “An icon of the sport, a deity in our sport,” said his coach, Elena Chase. He skis with uncommon aggression and grace. When he drops into the halfpipe, even on practice runs, rivals stop to watch.
“He is hands-down the best competitor in my eyes,” said freestyle skier Aaron Blunck, a close friend. “The kid could not land a training run all day, he could be in pain, he could be dealing with a bunch of stuff. But when it comes down to it, he sets his eyes on the pipe and just goes for it. He’s always my favorite guy to watch ski halfpipes, ski jumps, powder — anything. He’s my favorite skier. He’s just the competitor at heart. He won’t ever show it off the hill. But on the hill, you see it in his eyes.”
Even to those closest to him who lived through the ordeal, Yater-Wallace’s week-plus on life support retains an air of surrealism. He had already endured hardships that would have broken other skiers. Now the skier who owned podiums since he was a boy had been felled again, this time by microscopic bacteria. How to process such human fragility and athletic genius intermingling in one person?
“Hey, that’s my whole entire life,” Yater-Wallace said. “Something people haven’t seen before.”
At 14, Yater-Wallace entered the 2010 USASA Nationals, the nation’s top competition for amateur skiers and snowboarders. He was the youngest skier in both slopestyle and halfpipe, but he won them both, scoring a preposterous 9.73 in the halfpipe. Yater-Wallace used the $2,000 in prize money to help his mother, Stace, pay rent.
For the first decade of his life, Yater-Wallace grew up in a wealthy Aspen, Colo., home. His father, Ron Wallace, ran a successful wine futures business, Rare Fine Wines LLC, selling expensive wine that had yet to be bottled. Wallace became viewed as an industry expert. He bought a BMW and joined an opulent country club.
In the early- to mid-2000s, it unraveled, according to contemporary news reports. Customers stopped receiving wine they had paid for and alleged he had been running a Ponzi scheme, using payments for wine only to enrich himself. The first lawsuits came in 2003. The FBI ran a major crimes investigation. In 2005, Wallace pleaded guilty to counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and conducting an unlawful monetary transaction. He faced 70 years in prison.
Although he initially avoided jail, prosecutors ultimately sentenced Wallace to pay back $11 million, along with five years of probation and two of home detention. Wallace ended up bankrupt. In 2010, a judge sentenced him to nine months in federal prison and 27 months of supervised release for multiple violations of his probation. The case closed in 2011 with Wallace still owing creditors — who included major league pitcher Jamie Moyer and ESPN broadcaster Chris Fowler — more than $20 million.
As Wallace’s business spiraled, Stace did everything in her power to protect Yater-Wallace. He focused on his skiing even as their finances grew dire. He would move from house to house, his stuff constantly packed and unpacked. As he started winning as an early teen, his prize money would help make ends meet. He viewed it not as a burden but as a release.
“When he was on the hill, it was his church,” said Chase, who has known Yater-Wallace since he was 8. “Even just a fun powder day, he always showed up and appreciated skiing. He’s had a lot of adversity as an adult, too. Plus or minus, he’s had constant reminders his whole life and his whole career of appreciating skiing. When you’re on snow, it means everything is good.”
Yater-Wallace’s ascension continued. He stunned the skiing world by winning a silver at the 2011 X Games at 15, making him the youngest medalist in the event’s history. He was on a clear trajectory to contend for a gold medal at the Sochi Games.
Nothing about Yater-Wallace’s path, though, tends to be clear. Late in 2013, Yater-Wallace underwent a dry-needling treatment, a routine measure to alleviate soreness in his back. The physical therapist, Yater-Wallace said, drove the acupuncture needle too deep and punctured his lung. He didn’t realize anything was wrong until he had trouble breathing the next day training on Copper Mountain. He rushed to the hospital and realized what had happened.
“Absolutely absurd,” Yater-Wallace said. “Had I not been [going] to the Olympics, there would have been a major lawsuit.”
In the first Olympic qualifying event, Yater-Wallace crashed, broke two ribs and collapsed the lung again. The recovery prevented him from entering other qualifying events. “Just having to watch everybody try to qualify, just knowing there’s a high chance of me not going, with a lot of hype to win,” Yater-Wallace said.
Coaches gave Yater-Wallace the fourth spot on the team, a discretionary selection despite not having competed for nearly a year, a nod to his reputation and past accomplishments. With diminished health, he finished 26th.
At least coming out of Sochi, he had regained full health. He set his sights on his season and X Games and made it a goal to perform his best at PyeongChang. He didn’t realize his physical traumas had just started.
One day in November 2015, Yater-Wallace woke up and thought he had the flu. He went skiing, like always. When he returned home, he shivered and ached. He drove to Utah because he needed a pair of ski boots and felt miserable in his car the whole time. In Park City, several doctors told him he had the flu. Over four days, he went to the emergency room three times. He got sent home once with Tamiflu. His temperature kept rising.
Yater-Wallace’s roommates and Hendrickson were out of town, but Hendrickson called his agent, Michael Spencer, to make sure he checked on him. Spencer came to his house and made him soup. He sensed something wrong. “Don’t text me,” Spencer told him. “Call me.”
At 1 in the morning, Spencer’s phone rang. “Dude, I got to go the hospital,” Yater-Wallace told him. “I can’t even breathe.”
Spencer hurried him to the hospital in Park City. Yater-Wallace had horrific pain in his side, and his temperature had shot to 104. Doctors ran tests and life-flighted him to the University of Utah hospital. Delirious, Yater-Wallace insisted a helicopter would be too expensive, so they should drive.
“Horribly scared,” Yater-Wallace said. “I had never been so sick in my life. I hope nobody ever experiences that in their entire life.”
When he landed in Salt Lake City, doctors finally determined he had something far more serious than the flu. He had Streptococcus anginosus*. It rarely infects anybody, and when it does the victim is almost always over 40. Yater-Wallace was 19. Doctors had never seen anything like it.
An abscess had formed in Yater-Wallace’s liver, which caused his lungs to flood with fluid. It infected his gall bladder and made his organs expand. Four days after he had woken up feeling ill, doctors wheeled him into the ICU and placed him in medically induced paralysis.
“Watching him in the hospital bed almost die for eight days was pretty much the worst thing you can imagine,” Hendrickson said. “To have a nurse come in and say to his mom and to me to call in his sister and his dad because he might not make it is pretty brutal.”
Yater-Wallace remembers nothing about those 10 days except his odd dreams. When he woke up, he felt terrified, then thirsty. He had been fed through a tube for 10 days. He had lost 25 pounds.
“I didn’t even think about skiing when I woke up,” Yater-Wallace said. “I was just so confused. I was out of my world, as to what was happening.”
Recovery was slow with complications. He had to learn how to walk again. His body readjusted to solid food. Once doctors released him, he sat on a couch next to Hendrickson, who sat on a bed, recovering from her own knee surgery.
“He’s the most caring, loving, positive person to be around,” Hendrickson said. “I feel like I’m the negative one in the relationship. He’s always just cheering me up. No matter what happens to him, which has been crazy unlucky stuff, illnesses, everything, he just picks his head back up.”
Doctors insisted Yater-Wallace make a deliberate recovery. Once he left the hospital, one thought occupied his mind: “I just want to go ski.” Skiing had always been his escape, a way out of hard times.
“Torin skis through feeling,” Spencer said. “Skiing to him is a release. He doesn’t do a trick because he’s like, ‘Oh, I’m going to win.’ He feels the trick.”
Yater-Wallace’s first session took place at Lake Sydney, lapping at night by himself. He skied with medical equipment attached to his body — drain tubes in his liver and gall bladder, blood flowing from his liver to the tube. He stored penicillin in his pocket.
He started feeling stronger and rehabilitated harder. Yater-Wallace decided he wanted to ski in the European X Games at the start of 2016, just two months after his ordeal. Doctors made an ultimatum: He could have surgery to remove his gall bladder, which would sideline him for a month, or he could pull the drain tube out of his gall bladder and compete in Oslo.
There was a catch: If he pulled out the tube, he recalled, there was a 60 percent chance he would reinfect and wind up back in the ICU, back where he had been at the start.
He wanted to ski. Hendrickson understood. She comprehended the notion of weighing risk and preparing for the consequences — as a ski jumper, she had devoted her life’s work to it. When Spencer had flown with Yater-Wallace to the hospital, it unnerved him to remember he had lost another client there, after a horrible accident on the mountain. Yater-Wallace lived in a universe that accepted and required physical danger.
He pulled the tube.
Bile flowed into his intestines as doctors wanted. He traveled to Europe, and two months after he had been in medically induced paralysis, Yater-Wallace won the X Games gold medal in Oslo.
“It’s hard to understand he was that close to expiring, and then wins the biggest event of the year,” Chase said.
Any one of Yater-Wallace’s travails would be life-defining for most people, let alone a 22-year-old. He has a documentary coming out about his life in January, but he prefers not to look back. In some ways, it would be too hard. Would his life have been different if his dad didn’t wind up in federal prison? What would have happened if he had texted Spencer that night instead of calling, and he never saw the message?
“Something would have been figured out in time, I’m sure,” Spencer said. “Well, that’s what I like to think, anyway. I don’t want to speculate what-ifs.”
This year, for the first time, Yater-Wallace has been challenged landing on podiums. He plans on increasing the degree of difficulty for his runs in PyeongChang accordingly. He wants to perform his best, but he will not dwell on the results. He stopped asking why a long time ago. His life has made him appreciate skiing and everything he has, too.
Rick Maese contributed to this report.
* A previous version of this story described Streptococcus anginosus as a septic virus. It is bacteria. Also, a previous version of this story said Yater-Wallace had a PICC line in his gall bldder. It was a drain tube.