Slope Style?

Ty Walker on the Winter Olympics and her snowboarding future

A shorter, condensed version of this transcript ran in post- on Jan. 23

Could you walk me through your snowboarding career?

I started snowboarding when I like seven or eight years old. I lived on Long Island, and my family would go up to Vermont on the weekends, kind of like typical thing with family friends, and my older sister was definitely better than me at skiing, so I didn’t want to do that at all. We were really competitive, and we would always race. But she was older, and she would beat me. I was so pissed, so I was like “I want to snowboard.” Also, I was a huge tomboy, so the cool kid factor was definitely like a big thing. The year that I tried to start snowboarding, my older sister joined a ski racing team in Killington [Vermont], and my parents just wanted us both to be in the same program, so I even though I had never snowboarded before they put in the Killington snowboard club, like the team program, and just had one of the coaches work with me to get me up to speed kind of. I think that’s definitely important because I had pretty good coaching and a good environment when I started. Some people don’t like lessons, or sometimes the people who teach lessons aren’t as good of coaches, so that was pretty big. Also, on the team aspect, you compete in regional events. Within my first two years of snowboarding I was doing my regional contests and competing against other girls in my age group. There was only one other girl in my age group when I was that young, so I guess I beat her. They do the best person in your age group from that region goes to nationals, so I got invited to nationals when I was nine, and I got my ass kicked. Then I went back the next year, and I trained a lot more. I think just having another year on snow was big, and then I went back and won like three of the five events. At that level, when you’re kind of preteen to teenager, they have US team coaches like scouts almost at the nationals, and they watch for the most talented people in each age group and see if there’s any standouts. Just through being at nationals, meeting other coaches who were involved with that ladder process, you get invited to what’s called a gold camp, and that’s like a development camp for athletes to go onto the US team eventually. There, you work with the US team coaches and they kind of even further scout you out. I did that for a couple years, and during that time slopestyle, which is my sport, wasn’t part of the Olympics, so I was actually doing that for halfpipe. I was kind of on the development track for maybe 2018 Olympics in halfpipe, but at the same time I was always better at slopestyle…but it wasn’t an Olympic sport. So I would compete in slopestyle on my own, and then I would do the halfpipe thing for if I thought about going to the Olympics. I didn’t really think about going for slopestyle or halfpipe, but I was definitely better at slopestyle. Even regionally, when I was like 10 or 11 I would be able to beat girls in college in slopestyle. … When I was like 13, I started kind of doing the professional-level events which is really young. I did well with them for sure. I would always make the finals and things like that which was unheard of for someone my age at the time. Then when I was 14 I had my first pro season, and I signed a bunch of bigger contracts for riding just because I was kind of on the breakout scene. It was a great year. I got on a couple podiums which was great, and then at the end of that year going into the spring they announced that slopestyle would be in the Olympics in 2014. So I shifted my focus, again I was on this path of being a really good rider in halfpipe and maybe being on the rookie team at a young age versus in slopestyle, they were like “you can be on the pro team in slopestyle and go the the 2014 Olympics.” It was me and one other girl, and they sent a team of four. So chances were really good that I could go, and that was awesome. So I just started working with the US team. I kind of stopped riding halfpipe completely within two years of the Olympics and just shifted all my focus onto slopestyle. Then went to the 2014 Olympics when I was 16. After that, I kept riding. I had another season where I was fully with the US team and then at the end of that season I won my first World Cup which was huge. That was in big air. This year is the first time that’s going to be in the Olympics, so that was pretty cool because it seemed like I was kind of on that wave of progression going into big air. … But then I tore my ACL in March, and I was getting my college acceptances around that time. The plan was always to go to college, but I wasn’t really sure about the timing or if I was going to take a gap year or how it would work. But then tearing my ACL kind of gave me at least eight months to a year of [not being able to compete] so might as well go to school and start that out. So that’s when I started Brown. I came here for the fall and then I rode with my team in all of January for winter break to try and get back. There was actually specifically one event that I wanted to come back for which was a big air event. It was kind of like the second big air World Cup, and that was happening in Fenway Park. So it would have been really cool to have my family come watch, but then I might have come back a little bit too early. I don’t really know, but I ended up getting hurt in big air. I broke one of the vertebrae in my back, so that put my out again for a couple months. I stayed at Brown. I stayed the summer at Brown. I worked as an RA, and then I stayed again in the fall because you might as well get another semester out of the way. Our season doesn’t really start until December, so to take your finals in December and then be able to go, you’re not really that late. I did like a year and a half at Brown, and then I went back to train for the 2018 Olympics. The Olympic qualifiers went until January 24th, 2018, and the semester started like three days later. It was definitely a quick turnaround of trying to make the team. … Unfortunately I ended up maybe one or two events where I didn’t do as well. I think there was namely one event where it kind of the determining factor for the process, and I just didn’t do as well and ended up one spot out of that four-person team.

You mentioned that you were an RA at Brown this summer. Did you tell the students that you were an Olympian?

No, actually. I don’t really tell anybody that. There’s a lot of people who know that at Brown before they meet me or maybe they’ve heard of me, so I definitely get a lot of “oh, I’m Ty” and they’re like “you’re that snowboard girl. I totally know you,” and I’m like “gotcha.” The RA was chill because I worked with the campers, so none of those kids knew that, and I definitely didn’t tell them.

Why did you choose Brown?

I had never even really visited schools before I applied. I had really good grades. I had a good SAT score and just kind of applied to 13 schools or something like that. I had a ridiculous number of schools because I had never been there, and I had no idea what I was looking for. I did want to go to school on the east coast because my family is definitely really important to me, and I have a little sister who I love going home to see…I’d spent so much, especially when I was like 14, 15, 16, 17 even, not at home. I didn’t even live at home. I lived out west. Just knowing that if I went to school out west, I’d be going from the mountains to snowboard to California or wherever to go to school, and I would never make it home, so I definitely didn’t want that. … I liked Brown because I liked the open curriculum aspect. My whole life, especially not living at home, I had always made a lot of my own decisions. … At Brown, they had the open curriculum, so there was nothing that they made you do. They give their students a lot of independence here to make their own decisions and follow their own paths. You can jump around from a lot of different departments, try something new. That was huge for me. At Brown, I can continue to make my own path and make those decisions for myself versus other schools where it’s a lot more strict and you have to follow this very regimented program of all these requirements you have to take. That was important. Of the schools that I got into, I went around and toured them all, and I just loved Brown during ADOCH when I came here. The people that I talked to and the students were all so nice and just cool. A lot of people at Brown have those really unique passions, and that really got me interested in going here. They might not be interested in snowboarding or be connected to that, which is fine, but just having something that they really care about and have been involved in throughout their life, that’s pretty cool. When my mom showed up on campus to pick me up from ADOCH, she had wanted me to go to a different school I think, but then she showed up and she was like “I know that you really want to go to Brown. All the people around here look like they’re your people. I bet you want to go here.”

What’s your take on Team USA’s performance and the snowboarding runs put down in Pyeongchang?

I know the [overall] medal count is way down, but in snowboarding, we’re killing it. We’ve had four events, and we got four gold medals for slopestyle men’s and women’s [and] halfpipe men’s and women’s. That’s Jamie Anderson, Red Gerrard, Chloe Kim, and Shaun White. That’s pretty huge for us. Overall we do have a really, really competitive team on the snowboarding side. They can only take four people to the Olympics for each country, and it was so hard to watch [because] in the US we had five or six girls getting top 10 finishes in Dew Tour this season leading up to the Olympics, which are huge events for the international snowboarding community. Everybody is there, and we’re all performing so well. To still not be able to go [to the Olympics] because your country can only get four spots, and then there’s someone from Slovakia who gets to go [because] they’re the only athlete from their country, that’s definitely tough because you realize that you’re a more competitive athlete but still not being able to perform on that stage. That’s kind of a touchy thing because how many of the athletes there are actually the best? You think that the Olympics is the best athletes in the world. How many of them are really the best athletes in the world? … That’s really frustrating.

Shaun White, his qualification run and his final run was probably the best that I’ve seen him ride in like eight years. Since the last time he won the Olympics, I think he kind of lost his mojo a little bit. Style was a factor. A lot of things played into it, but the way that he rode in that event was better than I’ve seen him ride ever. To have him win the gold, be in second place going into the last run and then put down a run that was worthy of first place, that’s insane. That kind of pressure situation and knowing that he is Shaun and only first place counts. Second place doesn’t count for anything. To be the last rider to go and have to win was pretty crazy to watch.

Chloe Kim, obviously super insane to watch. One of my really good friends Arielle [Gold], she’s actually one of the people I lived with in Colorado when I was really young, got third which was awesome to watch. Just the level of riding that you saw in women’s halfpipe at this Olympics compared to other Olympics was crazy. It was such a big difference — so many technical tricks happening. Multiple 1080s, things like that. That’s huge.

Going into slopestyle, I was kind of disappointed to look at the course. Even on the men’s side, Red [Gerard] did a great run, but the runs in Korea were not as technical as even the runs in Sochi. … It was a great run, super stylish [and] definitely maxed out the ability of that course, but I don’t think that it showed the absolute best or most technical riding that could be done. I’m not at the course, but it didn’t look like people could get speed for the jumps. It didn’t look like the jumps necessarily had the pop you need for bigger tricks. … It was an interesting course. It allowed for a lot of creativity, but in general, there have been some runs that really have been mind-blowing since the last Olympics. … To not be able to show that on the Olympic course is tough because that’s why people work on those tricks — to be able to do the craziest trick and win the Olympics because of it. To not be able to do that is really tough. … Any of the riders are capable of harder tricks than what they did in their Olympic run, so that just shows you that it’s kind of difficult.

On the women’s slopestyle side, that was just so sad to watch because the weather was so bad. The runs that were put down were just riders that could land on their feet, that were luck with the wind, that could do a run in such challenging conditions. In any other day, even on a training day, we wouldn’t have gone out to snowboard in those conditions. Then you see the runs, and again, so much less technical than Sochi, and that is so disappointing because, at least from my perspective, the level of riding from Sochi to Pyeongchang has gotten so much higher. … My heart breaks for the girls. They don’t have school. They don’t have anything else. That’s their full-time job, and they dedicate four years to being able to put down their best run at the Olympics on that course and then they show up there and don’t even have the opportunity to do that. That’s so terrible and just not great for the sport in general. People watching at home are not amazed by the things that these really powerful women can do when they are capable of so much more.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

This is kind of a cliche answer, but women collectively in school and snowboarding. The girls that I get to travel with and ride with in snowboarding are some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. I was so fortunate to be able to grow up around this super open-minded, free spirited group of women who are just badass. They go up on the mountain every day and do tricks that are insane. … [They’re] really relaxed, into healthy lifestyles, into being active, just into being happy. That’s huge. That really awesome work ethic but combined with a really chill personality. Super down to earth. Some of my best friends in the sport would have to be some of my biggest inspirations. … In school as well there’s so many women around Brown’s campus that are just so driven and so smart. There’s a lot of different ways where you could be a powerful woman. In snowboarding, it’s obviously more of an athletic thing and also mental strength…but then in school it’s being intellectual and using knowledge as power. I think that’s pretty awesome too.

What was it like representing Team USA at the 2014 Olympics?

It was such an honor. Again, that’s kind of cliche. I think everybody uses that, but there is so much honor that goes into it. … You represent your country, but also you represent those lower communities that you came from. I had this honor of representing that small regional snowboard series that I came from when I was a kid. The honor of representing my town, of the schools that I came from. There’s so much respect that you get from becoming an Olympian which is really cool, but then there’s so much that comes with that, like wanting to represent those communities well and wanting to do best by those communities. Be an inspiration for younger generations. That’s the biggest thing that I took away from being on the Olympic team. Trying to be a good role model for future generations. Just the sense of achievement as well. … Making the team and having this huge accomplishment to be able to show for it for the rest of your life, that’s huge. It really demonstrates a lot of your personal willpower and strength. It’s pretty great to be able to see that in yourself after the fact.

What’s going through your mind when you’re waiting at the top of the slope?

That is so hard. It changes all the time. Sometimes I’m like a nutcase, and other times I’m so chill. At these Olympic qualifiers, in the first couple ones I was like “I need to go out there and do well. I need to put down my runs.” I play a lot of rap music to be super confident. … I don’t hear the music when I’m snowboarding anyway. I’m way too focused to even understand that there’s something in my ears, so that’s big. But also at the top before you go, tuning everything out and not being alone with your thoughts is big. Just listening to music and the confidence that comes with that is big. The first couple events I was so stressed [about] putting down my runs, visualizing, really locking in what I was going to do and trying to create this sense of confidence. You need to almost remind yourself that you’re a boss and that you’re going to do it. Towards the later events, it kind of shifted to this sense of “doing your best is all you can do.” As you move through the qualification process, you realize that it’s not just your control over your performance but also how other people are doing. You just need to be happy about your own performance. Go out there and do the run that you want to do. Be proud of what you’re going to put down. Whether you fall and end up in 20th place because of that run, or you land the run and still end up in fifth place, or you land the run and you end up in first in all three of those situations you dropped in wanting to do the same run. You did all that you could do. You trained the same way. You did the exact same things leading up to it, and the rest is kind of up to chance. You can’t control what the judges are going to think. You really can’t control if you fall because that happens a lot. You can train for it but if you go into the run planning on doing a run [and] if you fall doing it, that’s not really in your control. Having that kind of perspective of doing your best. Not that the outcome doesn’t matter, but being proud of the work that you put in to be able to do your best and to be able to do that run and to be able to be competitive — that was a big thing that I took away from the qualification process. … I was one spot away from making the team, but I was still so competitive. I still had great results during the season. I still did tricks that were so much better than anything I had done before Sochi. It just didn’t work out for me. The cards didn’t fall in my favor, but looking more at the work behind it that I put in is huge.

It’s a trend among Olympians to get a tattoo of the rings. Do you think you’ll get it done?

I have them! I didn’t get them when I first went which is really funny because I always wanted them, but I was still 16. What was I going to tell my parents? My dad was always really supportive, but my mom isn’t supportive of any tattoo. I knew that I wanted to get them, but I didn’t really commit to doing it. Also I’m really scared of needles, so that was a big factor. Then right before the second round of Olympic qualifiers … I was like “I don’t want to go into the Olympic qualifiers and not have them. What if I fail miserably in the first Olympic qualifier, get hurt in the first qualifier, and then I get the Olympic rings of the last Olympics that I went to. That’s a little weird.” I went in January of 2017 and got them done which was really cool. Then I had them before the Olympic Qualifications started for this [Olympics].

Do you think you’ll make a run for another Olympics?

I don’t know, honestly. I’m pre-med, so the idea would definitely be to go to med school, and that’s a long process. A lot of people ask me how I balance school and snowboarding, but they’re kind of mutually exclusive. Either I’m at school studying, trying to be a pre-med student and struggling with that or trying to snowboard and train every day. I don’t really do school [because] that’s kind of a full-time job. You do one or the other, so it’s difficult to think towards the future about taking more time off from school to keep going back for multiple seasons of snowboarding. But after this qualification process, I definitely think that there’s some feelings of wanting redemption and wanting to go back. We’ll just have to see. Just kind of let the dust settle after Pyeongchang. … Just kind of go over it with my coaches and see what the plan could be going forward and how I could make it work. That would be pretty awesome.