Two American halfpipe skiers punctuate matching Olympic tattoos with gold and silver medals

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – With a few days to kill in Seoul before the Olympic men’s halfpipe skiing competition, David Wise cooked up an idea. He and Alex Ferreira, his teammate with whom he strode into opening ceremonies, had shared enough memorable experiences together that they would commemorate it with a tattoo. They were looking for inspiration when they laid eyes on the PyeongChang Games’ logo.

It’s quite simple: nine straight lines, the first four oriented to look like two pillars sandwiched by a top and bottom, the other five arranged in a star. The first symbol is meant to represent harmony among heaven, earth and man. The second signifies winter sports stars.

On Thursday afternoon, they shared something else beyond the indelible reminder inked into their left arms: a podium. Wise, the best halfpipe skier in history, coming off a brutal between-Olympics stretch in which concussions waylaid him and other personal issues challenged him, won his second consecutive gold with a staggering run after a ski burst out of its bindings on his first two tries. Ferreira bagged a silver medal, his consistency paying off for the United States on its finest day of the Olympics.

Amid the glory of the gold-medal hockey game and the excitement of Mikaela Shiffrin’s combined run, the halfpipe skiers at Phoenix Snow Park reminded why Team USA is thankful for the existence of the spinning, flipping, new-school disciplines of halfpipe, slopestyle and big air snowboarding and skiing in which it now has captured 10 of its 21 medals. The creativity they foster – the ingenuity they demand – plays right into the American wheelhouse, whether it’s Jocelyne Lamoreux-Davidson’s stickhandling or Wise ripping off double-cork tricks in four directions, something he’d done just once before and that no other skier has mastered.

“It caters to doing things sort of differently than everyone else does,” Wise said. “And I think, as Americans, we have rebel in our blood. It’s who we are. It defines us as a culture. We do things differently than other people.”

Wise’s things gave him a score of 97.2, beating Ferreira’s 96.4. Sixteen-year-old Nico Porteous of New Zealand took bronze, holding off a podium some thought would feature Americans entirely. Aaron Blunck, who had the best run in qualifying, missed the podium by 10 points. Torin Yater-Wallace, perhaps the most pure talent on the team, crashed spectacularly in his final run to end his chances.

When Wise considered how to approach his, he asked his coaches at the top of the pipe whether he should pare back the difficulty of his run. They looked at him with cocked eyebrows. That wasn’t Wise’s style. He isn’t the sort to question himself. For half a decade, he has lived in his sport as an outlier: the dad among dudes, pious where religion isn’t much of a thing, different but not in a bad way.

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He reminded himself that he was here to win, jumped into the pipe backward and threw the first of the four tricks that netted his score: backward flipping to the left, forward flipping to the left, forward flipping to the right, backward flipping to the right – all with two off-axis, or corked, flips. He added a fifth at the end of his run for good measure.

“That’s the best he’s ever put it down,” Blunck said.

It came at quite the opportune time. Ferreira already had a 96.0 on the board, after which he celebrated by helicoptering his right pole over his head. Wise, who said “I really feel like I was put on this planet to create and do new things, to be a pioneer,” did just that, much to the cardiomyopathic displeasure of his father, Tom.

“My heart!” he said as he hugged his son. “My heart, man!”

“I’m sorry about your heart,” Wise said.

Well, he wasn’t that sorry. This run was about Wise, about what he needed to do. Three concussions robbed him of normalcy for six months. His wife suffered from post-partum depression after the birth of their second child. His sister lost her leg in a boating accident. His father-in-law died. Sponsors dropped him. His skiing suffered.

So this? This meant more than the last gold, when his hair was cropped short and he looked like he’d been dropped off at the wrong hill. Now, with the long hair, with the tattoos, he fits the physical stereotype. Only the rest hasn’t changed. He still works with church youth groups and wants to be a pastor. He donates 10 percent of his earnings to a foundation started by his sisters to provide prosthetic limbs to impoverished children in Haiti. He walks the walk.

On Thursday, he skied the pipe, better than he ever had, and that tattoo he shares with Ferreira now means even more.

“I really wanted to get a tattoo,” Wise said, “saying, ‘Hey, we did it. We made it.’”

They more than did it. They unquestionably made it. And now they’ll go home with two things nobody ever can take from them.

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