The Sochi Network

50 to watch: YouTube hit Wallisch eyes Sochi gold

In the run up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Reuters is highlighting the athletes to watch during the Games.

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An Olympic medal was never really part of Tom Wallisch's life project, he forgot that fanciful notion when he joined the free skiing rebels and hit the rails.

After rejecting convention, however, and becoming a YouTube sensation with a series of jaw-dropping videos complete with hip-hop soundtracks, a quirk of fate has brought the Olympics to him.

Thanks to the introduction of slopestyle, described by him as a skate park on snow, to the programme for Sochi, Wallisch can now dip into his endless bag of tricks in search of gold.

His latest free skiing video, a head-spinning eight-minute compilation simply named 'The Wallisch Project', shows the 26-year-old Pittsburgh native, performing jumps, somersaults and generally doing things skis were not designed for.

The garish colours, baggy clothes and edgy lyrics that would have teenagers turning down the volume when the parents walk in  are a world away from the straight-laced Olympic ideals.

Wallisch says his real passion is making free skiing movies but, for now at least, his focus is on Sochi where he will start as one of the favourites for the title having won last year's world championships in Voss, Norway.

"It's certainly a bit different from the usual Olympic sports which are so much about being the strongest or the fastest," Wallisch, now based in Park City, told Reuters.

"But this is like a really cool sport and we love it and we have the opportunity to go out and showcase it to the world.

"Hell, when I was a kid doing the moguls or some of the racing stuff it wasn't fun to me, so I gave that up and started free skiing and I said goodbye to any dreams of ever going to the Olympics or anything like that.

"So to have it come round out of pretty much nowhere is kind of surreal."

Wallisch says slopestyle grew as a "rebellion" against aerials and moguls and the commercialisation of skiing and snowboarding with its inclusion in the Olympics still not welcomed by purists.

"There are mixed opinions," he said. "It has a rebellious feel and there are a lot that don't like the Olympics. They want it to stay cool and hip and not mainstream. You know, jumping out of helicopters up in Alaska.

"But it's a really cool opportunity as an athlete so everybody who hates the idea will just have to deal with it.

"I think it's actually pretty exciting. For me, I've competed in the sport for seven or eight years professionally and I've been around and watched it grow and change."

So what can we expect to see at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in February?

"It's going to be like your local skate park on snow. You go to your local skate park... it's the same with jumps and rails and all those metal features," he said.

"There is no set time, no clock, you just ski through the park, just try to do the most fluid and stylish run, all kinds of spins and flips, just make it up.

"That's what makes it so interesting, no two runs are alike, its all about creativity and variety. You see lots of new interesting things and you're always on the edge of your seat not sure what's going to happen."

While a niche sport, Wallisch says slopestyle can open up wintersports to millions of urban children growing up in towns such as Pittsburgh.

All you need is snow and a few rails and a couple of jumps.

In one of his videos "Into The Mind" there is not a mountain in sight with Wallisch 'skiing' through downtown Calgary, through underpasses, over scaffolding and between skyscrapers.

Some of the stunts would grace a James Bond movie.

"Never giving that a thought but get me into a James Bond film that's what I'm saying right!" he said.

"That would be a cool gig."

"Seriously though, the thing is this is very accessible for kids in cities. You can't just try a bobsleigh or an Olympic downhill run but you can try some slopestyle features at pretty much any resort in the world.

"I've done Big Air events in city centres, scaffolding jumps, anywhere there is snow really."

Once Sochi is finished, Wallisch said he will concentrate on making films.

"That's what I love the most," he said. "Competing is really fun and you can travel the world but for me the filming aspect  is what makes it so cool, you have the opportunity to create something artistic.

"That's the pinnacle for me. To see the feedback online and get kids excited. After the Olympics, I will spend the next couple of years doing more of that.

"The Wallisch Project which we distributed on iTunes has been a pretty big hit and the thing which made me the most proud throughout my ski career."

Wallisch hopes to get to see some of the hockey and ice skating in Sochi, traditional Winter Olympic sports.

But he and his fellow slopestyle "rebels" will make their mark on the Games.

"I think even the Alpine skiers think what we do is pretty cool," he said. "I've got a couple of new tricks in mind but I'll keep that under wraps until the big day."