Share story

FRANCONIA, N.H. (AP) — Tyler Walker is moving on.

The 32-year-old Franconia native, a four-time Paralympian and former World Cup overall champion, has retired from competitive sit-skiing.

He exits on a high note after winning twin silvers in GS and slalom at the PyeongChang Winter Games last month, the first Paralympic medals in his 15 year international racing career.

“I had some pretty good closure,” said Walker, who worked his way back from a brutal crash in the men’s sitting downhill in Sochi four years ago to reach the medal stand in PyeongChang. “Winning a medal at the Paralympics was the last nut to crack.”

It was a perfect ending for Walker, who decided to call it quits before the season started, citing an interest in exploring other opportunities.

“It’s been a really fun time,” said Walker. “I love the travel, I love the skiing, I went to super cool places and met really cool people. I’m going to miss all of that. But I want to experience more and different things, and I need to move on to do that.”

Born without most of his spine, Walker had his legs amputated at the knee at age four, and began skiing in a homemade sit-ski on Cannon Mountain at age six, encouraged and supported by his parents Carol and James.

He trained with adaptive racing programs and Loon Mountain and Waterville Valley, not to mention his high school team at Profile School in Bethlehem. He qualified for the U.S. National team at age 17.

In addition to his Paralympic and World Cup success, he is the winner of three X Games gold medals in the Monoskier-X event. He also graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2008 with a double-major in geography and international affairs.

Key to his development were coaches Chris Young at Loon Mountain and Kevin Jardine on Team USA.

Young was a world class racer taking a mid-career break. He coached Walker for three years before both joined the national team together. He continued to offer guidance as a teammate.

“(Young) was the right coach at the right time,” Walker said.

Jardine has coached Walker for his entire 15-year run on the national team, shepherding Walker through the highs and lows of professional racing.

“I’ve wanted to retire several times in the past, and (Jardine) talked me out of it, he convinced me I had more potential, and he was right,” Walker said.

Walker closed out his racing career with a riveting final chapter.

Four years ago in Sochi, Walker was competing in the men’s sitting downhill when he suffered a horrifying crash — going airborne, striking the ground several times and losing consciousness — and was airlifted off the mountain.

He suffered no broken bones and the physical injuries healed in a matter of months, but the mental scars persisted, eventually leading him to seek out a sports psychologist, to help him overcome fear and regain confidence.

“I was pretty damaged mentally. It took a long time before I went fast enough to do well in any event, a long time before I had any kind of confidence,” Walker said. “I kept trying to do speed events again, I’d start to come back, and then I’d have a scary experience. I’d take three steps forward, two steps back, and sometimes further back.”

Despite reservations he began meeting with a sports psychologist three months before the 2018 Winter Games.

“When the sessions started, I was very resistant, I never thought it was worth the time and effort, I thought it was silly,” Walker said. “I thought, I can conquer this, my mind is strong.”

Instead the sessions proved massively effective, Walker said, helping him identify the sources of his anxiety, and helping him develop strategies to cope with it.

“When I started doing it, I was curious, I wanted to know how my life experiences are affecting my athletic experiences,” Walker said. “We went back to the beginning and tied it all together. Just knowing that and talking through that was massively liberating. It allowed me to focus better without carrying that weight everywhere.”

Through those sessions, Walker came to terms with the damage done by the crash, realizing he was no longer willing to take risks in speed events. So he focused on his strengths: GS and slalom.

With his sports psychologist in tow, Walker headed to PyeongChang feeling prepared. There were moments of pressure and anxiety, but he battled through them, claiming silver in GS and slalom, completing his comeback from Sochi.

“I’ve experienced every kind of high and low an athlete could experience,” Walker said. “To have it end on a high note, that’s exactly what I wanted.”

He took his final turns with the U.S. team a week after the Paralympics, competing in the Super G at the National Championships at Mammoth Mountain, dressed by teammates in a “crazy costume” that involved “a lot of unicorns and a pink cape” for his second run.

Currently living in Aspen, Colorado, Walker will miss the camaraderie, but not the grind. He has himself to blame. He helped build the sport and served as a role model to a new generation of young, fast mono-skiers. Holding them off got tougher as he got older. Now he’s ready to step aside and let them rip.

He couldn’t be prouder.

“It’s an extreme sense of fulfillment,” Walker said. “Now the sport is more established than it ever has been, and I got to play a role in that. It feels really cool.”

___

Online: https://bit.ly/2K8fQ7T

___

Information from: The Caledonian-Record, http://www.caledonianrecord.com