Winter Olympics Inspires Generations Of Sun Valley Family
By Tom Banse
Before you know it, the next Winter Olympics will be upon us. The Opening Ceremony is two short months away (Feb. 7, 2014). The 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia will feature a new medal event - freestyle skiing in the halfpipe. A daring skier from the Northwest hopes to make his Olympic debut in the first time Olympic event.
You know how people sometimes talk about the "circle of life?" This one's generational... or in the lingo of freeskiing you might call it a double alley oop flat spin 1080. Our story begins with a family patriarch. He began a long career making ski movies by filming the 1960 Winter Olympics. The name: Dick Barrymore. This Idaho-based producer/director had a son. Blake Barrymore skied in some of his dad's pioneering films. Classic movies such as "The Last of the Ski Bums" and "The Performers" helped to popularize freestyle skiing in the 1960's and '70's.
The acrobatics, hot-dogging and mogul skiing featured in the Barrymore movies (and the ski flicks of his contemporary Warren Miller) advanced and eventually evolved into official competitive disciplines. Meanwhile, the filmmaker's son also had a son. Now that grandson is training for the 2014 Olympics in - what else? - freeskiing.
Photo: Wing Tai Barrymore in front of his home mountain, Sun Valley's Baldy. Photo by Tom Banse.
But this neat circle almost didn't happen. Wing Tai Barrymore says dirt bike racing was his "first true passion." He was on track to become a professional motocross competitor until midway through high school in Hailey, Idaho. He says "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."
He says he and his parents recognized he "needed a change." In case you're wondering, the skiing Barrymore family is no relation to the American theatrical and movie acting dynasty of the same name.
Barrymore joined the local Sun Valley ski team (known formally as SVSEF) in his junior year.
Wing Tai Barrymore: "I just did it to have a break. 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."
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.
Andy Ware: "Going big - getting a lot of air - is something he is very comfortable with. 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."
Wing Tai Barrymore: "It's scary, you know. Dropping into that big, icy monster is not an easy thing to do."
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 fly more than twenty feet above the pipe's lip. If he fails to maintain cat-like abilities, he could fall four stories to the bottom.
Wing Tai Barrymore: "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 has had three knee surgeries in the past two years. He says he now feels back to 100 percent. It is a timely recovery because what comes next are five 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.
Barrymore estimates about 15 elite American skiers are competing for four slots on the men's U.S. halfpipe team. The prospect that he might be on that team when his event debuts at the Olympics thrills him. "It's special. It's history," enthuses Barrymore. "It's really exciting to see and it's really cool to be part of it for the first time. I'm very fortunate."
Wing Tai Barrymore - U.S. Ski Team bio page:
Short, fun YouTube video to embed, if desired, of Wing Tai Barrymore doing laps in the Sun Valley halfpipe:
Watch Wing Tai's father, Blake Barrymore, in the role of "Ted Shred," demo an early snowboard, possibly the first time snowboarding was depicted on film. The promotional film "Canadian Mountain Odyssey" was released in 1983.