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The sky was so clear during the men’s ski cross event on Friday that the racers could see the long shadows of their opponents. But visual cues didn’t help Tyler Wallasch, the lone American in the Olympic field.
Wearing a blue bib and a star-spangled helmet, Wallasch was grouped with three Europeans in his opening heat: the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, Bastien Midol of France; Adam Kappacher of Austria; and Simone Deromedis, a 21-year-old Italian who would go on to place fifth.
Wallasch trailed from the start, made up ground, and briefly tangled skis with the Austrian, but never overtook Midol and Deromedis who would advance to the quarterfinals.
So it was ‘game over’ for the self-funded American. Wallasch finished in 28th place, just like two of his predecessors: Daron Rahlves (in 2010) and John Teller (in 2014). Only Casey Puckett has placed higher at the Games (23rd in 2010) but the number is negligible because every US Olympic skicross racer so far has failed to advance past the opening heats.
“It was not the result I was going for, obviously,” Wallasch said. “I gave it my all, but it wasn’t enough.
“I’m hugely proud to be here but immensely disappointed with the result. I have the speed for so much more… As one man trying to compete against these incredible athletes and programs I can only do so much.”
No one knows when the US might invest in a skicross program, but one thing is clear.
Wallasch, 27, plans to be the first American to extend his ski cross career past the Olympics. He’s already been on the World Cup for 10 years but he never raced in college. He turned to ski cross at 16, after his volunteer football coach at Mammoth High School told him he would love it. That coach happened to be Teller, the 2014 Olympian. And Teller was right.
Wallasch qualified for the World Cup at 17 and was off to Europe to train. Since then, he has had to dig into his savings and find his own sponsors to finance his career. He said he currently receives “zero percent” of his budget from US Ski and Snowboard, and the organization acknowledged this week that there is “no national team” because no American man – or woman – has met its extremely difficult criteria for funding.
To achieve “A team” funding next year would require a 2022 Olympic gold medal, a World Cup win, or two World Cup podiums this season. “B team” status would require two top-eight finishes this season before March 29. Wallasch placed fourth at one World Cup, in December.
Yet the national teams that achieve results aren’t one-man shows. They are sizeable, like the Swiss squad whose men finished 1-2 to win the gold and silver medals. Or team Canada, who maxed out its Olympic quota in Beijing, sending four men and four women, and left 10 other competitive racers at home (including one who won a World Cup skicross event in which he beat the new 2022 Olympic champion, Ryan Regez in mid-January).
“It might sound weird,” Wallasch said, “but I’m so used to being an afterthought, that I am used to relying on the resources I bring for myself.”
That has meant forging a partnership with the German team in order to have training partners and swap training videos. That has meant hiring two Austrian coaches, a physio, and two ski techs that he shared with the Czech team.
But traveling with a staff for about seven months of the season can easily cost “north of 60K,” he said, not including travel, lodging, or expenses.
“I don’t love discussing the financials of trying to compete at the highest level of ski cross as a private athlete,” he said, but otherwise, Wallash expressed nothing but positivity and candor via email from China.
Even in defeat.
Sitting in the wax room, wearing all his race gear after the abrupt end of his Olympic debut, he typed this message on his phone:
“Yea it was beautiful! Got unlucky with the start with a pole in my legs, and had a ton of speed but made my biggest catch-up on the wrong section. Felt great, I’ve had the speed for an amazing result all week. A ton of good guys went out early. I felt great, confident…
“Immediately next for me, I’m going to enjoy my last few days here before the whole ski cross tour flies to Russia for our next World Cup stop. And then immediately to Austria. It will be nice to get back into the groove of racing after the last few weeks of Olympic chaos.
“As far as long term… in the finish it’s really easy to say, ‘Well… I guess it’s time to start working towards 2026.’ But now writing this, I’ll have to think about it. [After] every Olympic cycle, the level of skicross has exponentially increased… I really don’t know if it’s possible to keep doing what I’m doing now, let alone try to increase the investment to put myself in the medal-contender category [that] I know I can be in.
“That being said, going one more season would make me the only American skicross Olympian to continue their career in skiing. I absolutely plan on doing that. But for now, I’m going to finish my season, enjoy the last few World Cups, go for some wins, then hopefully get back to the US sooner [rather] than later as I haven’t really been on US soil since August… (minus a 7-hour layover in Denver in January).”
He also planned to talk to Teller, Rahlves, and Puckett–the only other Americans to find their way into the Olympic start gate after carving paths that were magnitudes steeper, bumpier, and more obstacle-ridden than the one in the snow that could lead to gold.