Freeskier Tanner Hall makes return to Winter X

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Associated Press

Posted on January 24, 2013 at 9:00 PM

Updated Thursday, Jan 24 at 9:02 PM

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Freeskier Tanner Hall just can't shake the haunting images of his jarring wipeout.

Even nearly four years later, bring up his crash and he cringes. That day instantly rushes back: Overshooting the landing area off a jump. Falling 50 feet to the icy slopes below. Excruciating pain after shattering both legs.

Hall was in a wheelchair for nearly four months waiting for his legs to heal. Only then did he have separate surgeries to repair the torn ACL in both knees, along with a microfracture procedure on his right knee. More time in a wheelchair.

All that discomfort led him down some pretty dark roads as he developed — and later kicked — an addiction to prescription pain medication. All that discomfort also had him wondering if he would ever ski again.

And now here he is, back at the Winter X Games, the place where he's a rock star after winning seven gold medals — usually in flamboyant fashion, too.

But the free-spirited freeskier wasn't all that outlandish in the halfpipe on Thursday. He actually played it safe on two passes through the pipe and failed to advance to the final.

Know what? He's all right with it. Better than all right, really.

Because his return to Winter X was more about clearing a mental hurdle, getting a "good vibe" again in the halfpipe.

He succeeded, too — just in time.

After all, the Sochi Olympics are only a year away and the 29-year-old fully expects to be there competing against athletes who grew up watching his gnarly runs and striving to ski just like him.

"I can do anything I put my mind to," Hall said.

Like return from an accident that should've ended his career.

Hall was shooting scenes for a film in Stevens Pass, Wash., when he simply soared over the landing area on a practice jump and kept right on going, before tumbling back to the hill.

"Worst. Pain. Ever," Hall said. "All I could think was, 'Oh no, not again.'"

Hall is no stranger to bad crashes. In 2005, he broke both heels in a spill in Utah, but quickly returned to competition.

This time, there were no guarantees.

To cope with the constant pain, Hall turned to whatever he could get his hands on — Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin. He also was mixing it with alcohol.

"It was not a good scenario," said Hall, who grew up in Kalispell, Mont., and lives in Park City, Utah.

His friends finally had enough of watching his downward spiral and gave him an ultimatum: Clean up his act or they were leaving. They couldn't watch his destruction.

One of those friends was the late C.R. Johnson, who died in February 2010 after hitting his head on a rock outcropping while taking a run down a steep chute at California's Squaw Valley. He was 26.

"It (stinks) losing one of your best friends, one of the best skiers in the world," Hall said.

Soon after, Hall began to kick his addiction to pain meds his own way — by abruptly quitting. The withdrawal was intense.

"For three weeks, I thought I had a broken back," Hall said. "I felt lifeless.

"Then, everything started coming back. My strength started coming back."

Still, he was a long way off from dropping back into a halfpipe. His knees constantly ached.

To speed up the recovery, Hall experimented with alternative therapies and ventured down to Mexico for prolotherapy injections, which purportedly increase the blood supply to stimulate tissue growth.

Maybe it helped, but not as much as this: Training the right way in the gym. Hall began working with physical therapist Jessica Tidswell at the U.S. Ski Team's Center for Excellence to improve his strength. He did pool therapy and ran on a long trampoline before working his way up to strength training. He added 20 pounds of muscle.

"She kept my head on straight, kept the confidence in me," said Hall, who eventually hired Tidswell away from the ski team. "I'm lucky — I've had some pretty awesome people in my life."

Hall returned to skiing 14 months after his accident. Way too soon.

So he took more time off and now is easing his way back into things. Before arriving at Winter X, Hall spent a few days "shredding pipe" in Park City. Before that, he filmed for 2½ weeks in British Columbia.

"That was fun," he said. "I forgot about everything — the Olympics, competing."

Halfpipe skiing is set to make its Olympic debut next winter and Hall can hardly believe it.

"It's funny how cool we've made our sport over the last 10 years," said Hall, who played a big role in that along with Sarah Burke, who died in a training accident last year. "They had no choice but to grab their hands on it to keep their big organization relevant and keep the Olympics relevant with the evolution of all these cool sports going on."

Hall is not a big fan of the business side of his sport. That's why this season he's largely doing his own thing. Next year, he will have to acquiesce to the rules set forth by the International Ski Federation (FIS) if he wants to make the Olympic squad.

"I'm going to follow the rules, but I'm going to let the whole world know how (messed) up it is," Hall said. "I'm outspoken. I'm going to do whatever I can to let people know about the corruptness that has been going on inside our industry, because it's been going on for a while now.

"If you're not Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller or Ted Ligety, it's kind of hard to make it on the U.S. team."

Yep, he's definitely frank.

Actually, the time away from skiing has actually mellowed Hall. He almost feels, well, grown up.

"Still a kid at heart, though," Hall said, grinning. "I like to live my life by my rules."

Notes: Snowboarder Shaun White finished second in superpipe qualifying Thursday night to advance to the final on Sunday. White is going for a sixth straight gold in that event. He also made it out of slopestyle qualifying earlier in the day. ... Brothers Caleb and Colten Moore each crashed in the snowmobile freestyle final. Caleb sustained a concussion, and Colten hurt his right hip. Both were taken to the hospital for further evaluation.

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