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Olympics

Finally Understand What a Double Cork 1080 Is? Thank Olympic Commentator Tom Wallisch

His color commentating for men’s and women’s big air, slopestyle, and halfpipe contests at the Beijing Winter Olympics reveals the athleticism and characters of skiing’s top athletes.

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Tom Wallisch is a pioneer in the world of freeskiing. Since his break-out debut in Level 1’s 2007 Superunknown video contest and winning back-to-back Powder Magazine Reader Polls in 2011 and 2012, he has humbly shepherded freeskiing from its nascent roots onto the world’s biggest stage—the Olympic Games.

He missed Sochi with a knee injury and recently stepped away from competition, but Wallisch continues to contribute to his sport. His color commentating for men’s and women’s big air, slopestyle, and halfpipe contests at the Beijing Winter Olympics reveals the athleticism and characters of skiing’s top athletes.

His detailed breakdowns of complicated tricks have opened the sport’s most insider-y trickery to the masses, with easy-to-grasp explanations of the spins and rotations that define the highest level of freeskiing.

Colorado Sun reporter Jason Blevins (who is pretty stoked to not be covering these Games in Beijing after working the Sochi and South Korea shows) spoke with Wallisch about his work with NBC as an announcer and commentator for six freeskiing events. Catch Wallisch in action calling the men’s halfpipe final at 8:30 EST. Here’s how to watch.

Jason Blevins: You are with the NBC crew in Connecticut, right? Is it hard to call these events from 7,000 miles away? You know every one of these athletes and I have to think you miss those daily interactions with them during events.

Tom Wallisch: It’s definitely more challenging to do remotely and not be at the event but at the same time, with the quality of the camera work and knowing the athletes so well, it’s fine. I was at X Games earlier this year and got to go to dinner and ski with everyone and watch them train and watch the practice. You do get a better feeling and understanding with all that extra information. While I know these athletes really well, there is a lot of nuances I miss not being there on snow with them. I would have much better anecdotes if I was there.

JB: I feel like snowboarding has had the greatest color commentators for years. Todd Richards. DC. T. Bird. But skiing hasn’t really had that level of passionate, knowledgeable announcers. Why is that, do you think?

TW: I have so much appreciation for Luke Van Valin, who was doing it long before me. But I remember public announcers, at the events, just not getting it right. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves; when someone would get something so blatantly wrong from a technical standpoint. As an athlete, that drove me crazy. It was so frustrating to know the tricks you were doing were not getting the recognition they deserved. So when I retired, I thought, if no one else is going to step up and do this right, I will do it.

JB: You are making it approachable. These skiers used to seem like aliens, just spinning, flipping aliens on skis. You help us see them as methodical athletes who have spent lifetimes honing their craft. We understand them better thanks to you.

TW: I want to explain the sport in a fun and approachable way. My whole goal has been to get more people into the sport. The more people out there who are going skiing and buying gear and getting into terrain parks and hitting jumps the better we all are. Skiers already know that. I want to share that with more people. I want to make it fun and interesting and showcase these athletes and the sport in the best light and make it seem like a really fun activity that you want to do or you want your kids to do.

JB: It’s hard to convince outsiders that these skiers are true athletes, not just kids who have fun skiing all day. You are doing a great job of showcasing that athleticism.

TW: That means a lot. All these guys say at the bottom of the run that they are just in it for fun but they do take it so seriously. It’s not that different from the pros in other sports. The pro football players love tackling a dude and throwing a touchdown pass. It’s really fun. It just so happens that these sports these athletes compete in are recreational vacation activities.

JB: And they have really evolved into professional athletes, just like the ones in the ball sports.

TW: Exactly. From my history of growing up competing, I’ve noticed that and that’s what I’m trying to get across. These guys are not just going out partying and then trying these tricks. They are training year-round. They are working out all summer. They are hitting rails 100 times a day to work on that one trail trick. It might not be the grind in a gym you see on an NFL show, but it’s a 9-to-4 grind all day, every day at the ski area with athletes trying these tricks all day long, all season long. It’s really impressive the level of practice, perseverance, and repetition it takes for these athletes to develop and perfect their tricks. There is so much work going it into that doesn’t get seen very often.

JB: But it’s becoming more seen, right? Think back a few years and the ski moviemakers started showing more behind-the-scenes stuff, showing us that this is not simply dropping some ripper on a remote ride in AK and rolling cameras. Look at the success of Cody Townsend and his “The 50 Project,” which is anchored in transparency and shows the grit and not-always-glam side of big mountain skiing.

TW: It always seemed a little unattainable in the classic Warren Miller ski film, with a quick heli shot and then a skier ripping some massive line. So few of us can do that. All this newer content, like Cody’s videos or the behind-the-scenes pieces—whether it’s backcountry or uphill skiing or avalanche awareness or setting up an urban rail or the hundreds of attempts it can take to get a good park shot—it’s helping to make skiing more attainable.

More understandable. I think that’s one of the benefits of social media. We get to see these raw moments and how much work it takes. It can seem more approachable when you see some crazy trick and then the process and progression behind the trick as an athlete took it from the trampoline or the airbag to snow to competition and then the X Games or the Olympics.

JB: What’s a highlight of your Olympics tour so far?

TW: This is the first Olympics I’ve called so it’s all a highlight, really. Being part of this whole movement and just being here. Just being at the NBC headquarters and interacting with all these other sports broadcasters. There is so much talent here and everyone working and calling these events has such a history with their sport. It’s such an honor to be a part of it.

JB: How cool is it to see your friend Colby Stevenson crushing on the Olympic stage? What a story. (Park City’s Stevenson fell asleep at the wheel of a truck in 2016 and rolled it off a remote Idaho highway, fracturing his skull in 30-some places, forcing doctors to put him in a medically-induced coma.)

TW: Colby had every reason to question if he would ever ski again. I went and visited Colby in the hospital after that and there was no way that kid I saw in that hospital bed was ever going to ski again. His head was broken open. He was barely awake. Barely alive. His recovery from that, with his new attitude and recovery, it’s just an incredible transformation to watch.”

Which athletes in Beijing are you impressed with?

TW: I’m really impressed by the skiing by Alex (Hall) and Colby. They are such talented kids. Nick Goepper, I’ve watched him train so hard in the last year. He has a rail set in his backyard that he hikes every day. I mean we did that as teenagers, but Nick, he’s a 27-year-old man. His commitment to the sport and his work ethic to train and focus on the Olympic Games just goes to show how important all that work is. And I’d be remiss not to mention Eileen Gu. Her level of skill and dealing with pressure and ability to put down runs … she is just an astounding young woman.

JB: I love how you give us a peek behind the judging curtain. You are kind of our live judge. Do you keep in touch with Steele (Spence) and Jason (Aren)? Have you ever heard from them about your calls? You aren’t always aligned with the judges’ numbers.

TW: When I’m there in person, we are in close contact. We will have a beer and catch up. They let me know what they are looking for and their focus. It really helps me to know that. They will say things like .. the tricks are getting too spinny or too crazy with too many big spoons that are not well grabbed … so the judges are focused on those grabs. I’m always picking their brains. It’s an open line of communication. I do miss some things and if I see something, I will bring it up. Maybe they saw something I did not. I try not to harp on them too hard. It’s a thankless job.

JB: God bless them. They are the guardians of the sport. They are always having to find that balance between style and technical prowess. And that’s been an issue for nearly 10 years, celebrating individual style and expression without turning contests into a spin-to-win throwdown.

TW: The judges, for the most part, have done a great job of keeping it from getting out of hand in that way. From my personal experience, my goal is not to be just smoother than the next guy. You want to be better and do the harder trick. You do want to progress the sport and you want to show you are technically capable of the next great thing. You can add a new spin or flip and the hit will definitely be harder but if you are going to step into that next rotation it needs to be with a great grab and solid landing. The big focus the judges have had lately is holding the grab longer. Not just a minute grab during a brief part of the spin. At least half the rotation. It’s the grab that limits it from becoming too gymnastic.

JB: You said that during the slopestyle contest … you didn’t want to see the tricks being too gymnastic. What do you mean?

TW: Aerials are gymnastic, where you want perfect form. But in freeskiing and snowboarding, the spins need to be ingrained inside the mood and medley of the trick and the style of the athlete. There already is an aerial [dicipline] and we don’t need another one.

JB: It can be tough navigating both the core skiing audience and the general public. It’s pretty hard to make them both happy. I think you are nailing it.

TW: That is a delicate balance. I speak so purely about the tricks and the nuance of the sport, but it’s always nice to have an announcer like Todd (Harris) there who is fluid and helps us go from person to person so I can stick to talking tricks. He offers that stability to make it a broadcast show and to convey that this is a real sport. Sure, everyone is so critical as spectators of a core sport like this. Maybe they don’t understand how hard it is to be booth-calling this sport. I’ve got someone in my ear, and they are always telling me stuff. Who’s next. Where we are going next. When we are going to break. There’s just so much to it. It’s live TV. I’m definitely struggling walking that line. I want this industry to be watching this sport and enjoying the show but my goal is to also integrate newcomers into the sport. I want newcomers to be able to hear this and see it and think that skiing is something they want to get into.

JB: What are you hoping for in the pipe contests?

TW: Having watched the snowboard event, I know what’s possible in this pipe. Talking with the athletes, it’s one of the best-shaped pipes they’ve ridden all year. So I’m looking for a big event. I’m looking for more amplitude. I think we will see some big air. They are going to be throwing big tricks, but also going 20-plus feet out. I’m hoping the Americans can put together a big couple of runs. There is so much talent on the men’s slopestyle and pipe teams. I think the pipe team has a good chance to sweep. I’m curious if anyone can beat [New Zealand’s] Nico Porteous. He’s the guy to beat in men’s pipe. In women’s pipe, it’s the Eileen Gu show. She hasn’t lost a pipe event all year. Kelly Sildaru is in there too, she’s been so good since she was 10. She won the X Games at 13 and now she’s 19. She’s amazing.”

JB: You’re 34. Are you still skiing like you did?

TW: Oh yeah, definitely. I may not be trying 1980s. I’m not competing or skiing at that level but I’m still getting out there. I’m mostly focused on filming in the backcountry but anytime I’m home in the park I’m doing some tricks and skiing with all the kids. I can do some double-cork 12s and other basic stuff.

JB: Ha. It wasn’t that long ago that double-cork 12s were anything but basic.

TW: True. I promised myself I’d do a double-cork 10 when I turned 50 so I’ve got 16 years.

JB: As long as it stays fun right?

TW: That’s it. It’s such a fun sport to be a part of and I love helping to convey that fun for a sport I love so much.

Jason Blevins is a writer at The Colorado Sun and a longtime ski and outdoor reporter.