KETCHUM, IDAHO —
The 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, will feature a new medal event - freestyle skiing in the halfpipe - and a daring skier from the U.S. Northwest hopes to make his Olympic debut at the event.
Dirt bike racing was Wing Tai Barrymore
’s first true passion. He was on track to become a professional motocross competitor until midway through high school in Hailey, Idaho.
"I was gone so much going to all these big races. I was failing high school. Really, I was missing out on being a kid," said Barrymore, whose first name means "forever peaceful" in Chinese.
He and his parents recognized he needed a change, so Barrymore joined the local Sun Valley ski team in his junior year.
"I just did it to have a break," he said. "You know, I always kind of intended on returning to motocross, but I found this sport and I really love it. Everything has gone so well with it in the past four or five years that it's just been great."
Skiing is in his genes. His grandfather began a long career making ski movies by filming the 1960 Winter Olympics. His father skied in some of those pioneering films, which helped to popularize freestyle skiing.
Barrymore’s first name - Wing Tai - honors older ancestors, including his great grandfather on his mother’s side, who emigrated from China to Hawaii.
Barrymore started to compete in halfpipe skiing at age 16. Within three years, he became junior national champion twice and won a World Cup halfpipe event.
Last season, he was named to the U.S. Ski Team. Now the 21-year-old has a good shot at making the Olympic team, according to Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation freestyle program director Andy Ware. Ware gives some credit to Barrymore's prior motocross experience.
Freestyle skier Wing Tai Barrymore, near his Sun Valley, Idaho, home. (VOA/T. Banse)
"Going big, getting a lot of air, is something he is very comfortable with," Ware said. "That's something we can't coach. We can stress it to an athlete, but it's really up to them as to how far they're willing to let themselves go. For Tai, he takes it right to the ceiling."
The halfpipe is a long sloping trough of densely packed snow. Skiers and snowboarders use identical ones in judged competitions. The athlete drops in and then executes of routine of jumps, spins, gnarly flips, grabs, and backwards and forward landings.
A strong skier like Barrymore can soar more than six meters above the pipe's lip. If he fails to maintain cat-like abilities, he could fall four stories to the bottom.
"It's scary, you know. Dropping into that big, icy monster is not an easy thing to do," Barrymore said. "It's definitely dangerous, for sure. But one of the things for me, I feel like I always have so much fun doing it that I never think about it."
Barrymore, who is no relation to the Hollywood acting dynasty, has had three knee surgeries in the past two years. He says one knee is still "bugging" him a little bit. But he's determined to participate in Olympic team selection events.
The U.S. freeskiing team will be named just two weeks prior to the Sochi Games based on who's hottest at that point.
The Opening Ceremony for the Winter Olympics is Feb. 7, 2014