Gutsy athlete soars in Olympic quest

January 3rd, 2018

Allie Welsh never had done gymnastics or acrobatics, much less thrown herself 30 feet above the snow on skis.

But, she always had been a fierce athlete.

Allie Welsh poses with her skis at the top of Copper Mountain with peaks in the background. She's trying to make it to the Olympics in halfpipe skiing.
After overcoming numerous injuries, Allie Welsh is trying to make it to the top of the world with a shot at the Olympics in halfpipe skiing. (Photo by Mark Reis)

So, after numerous knee blowouts forced the All American lacrosse player to take a medical retirement during her college lacrosse career at University of California Berkeley, she made a wild, gutsy move. Allie switched sports to halfpipe skiing.

And, she’s on a quest to make it to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.

Allie’s coming back from a scary fall during training in October in New Zealand that left her with a broken arm and a brutal infection. That injury came on top of numerous others. But, she has recovered and is training hard. Now everything is on the line in two halfpipe skiing competitions this month.

Trading her lacrosse stick for skis

The idea of trying halfpipe skiing was insane, Allie, 27, readily admits.

A Colorado native, she always loved skiing, but never had set foot – or skis – in a halfpipe. One day, as Allie was pondering her future after graduating in 2012 from Berkeley, she was watching the X Games. She found herself captivated as she saw the star in women’s halfpipe skiing – Jen Hudak –  fly, spin and grab her skis to claim the gold in halfpipe skiing.

Among those cheering for Hudak at the bottom of the pipe was her orthopedist.

Allie Welsh flies through the air as she practices halfpipe skiing at Copper Mountain.
Allie trademark style is to get great air on her tricks. Here, she practices at Copper Mountain. Photo by Mark Reis

Allie had an “ah-ha” moment. She, too, had a go-to orthopedist: Dr. Martin Boublik of UCHealth’s Steadman Hawkins Clinic-Denver. Boublik and his team had kept Allie in top condition as she coped with two meniscus tears in each knee during high school and college. Boublik also helped Allie wrestle with the tough decision to give up competitive lacrosse in college. Together, they decided her knees could no longer handle the pivoting, pummeling and constant running in lacrosse.

As Allie watched Hudak compete, a spark lit her up.

“I realized I wasn’t done being an athlete.”

‘Let’s see if you can spin’

Would Boublik ever sign off on halfpipe skiing? And for that matter, did Allie have the courage to launch herself off the nearly vertical walls of a 22-foot-deep halfpipe, then twist and fly another 10 feet in the air to perform spectacular tricks?

Allie picked up the phone and called Hudak’s coach.

“I had never been in a halfpipe. I had no business thinking I could hang there,” Allie said. “But I told her I really wanted to try this.”

The coach, Elena Chase, gave Allie a shot.

She headed to Vail, where she found a giant airbag that skiers use to work out new tricks.

“Let’s see if you can spin,” Chase said.

She told Allie to do a 360, one full rotation.

“I accidentally did a 900,” Allie said.

Clearly, she could spin. She quickly excelled in her new sport and last year, ranked 12th in the world among women in halfpipe skiing.

Now, in order to clinch a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, Allie will need to score in the top three in two key qualifying competitions this month. The first takes place Jan. 10-13 at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix in Snowmass and the second will be Jan. 17-20 at Mammoth Mountain in California.

A perilous halfpipe skiing trick could make history

On a recent sunny day in Copper Mountain, Allie joined some teen up-and-comers and legendary snowboard phenom, Shaun “The Flying Tomato” White, to practice tricks in the halfpipe. The pipe is open to any and all. Some beginners snowplowed right through the bottom of the trough, oblivious to the Olympians and Olympic hopefuls practicing tricks above them.

Allie has been perfecting a trick that Hudak, the former world champion and X Games gold medalist, says is a beauty and would help Allie make history if she can land it.

It’s called a Flat 5. In order to do the trick, Allie has to flip backwards, then do a 180 spin with her skis whirling like helicopter blades.

Allie Walsh shows off the long scar on her arm. She fell and broke her arm while training in halfpipe skiing in New Zealand in October.
Allie was training in the summer and early fall in New Zealand. She fell on a relatively simple trick and broke her arm. She’s fighting back from injuries to try to make the Olympics in halfpipe skiing in February. Photo by Mark Reis.

“I have never seen another female do it the way Allie does,” said Hudak, who will be working as an analyst for halfpipe skiing for the X Games later this month. “It’s awesome.”

And it’s perilous.

“It’s a very blind trick. The way that she’s rotating, there’s a point of complete blindness. If you don’t take off perfectly, it’s going to give you challenges,” said Hudak, who is retired from the sport now and appears in the newest season of The Amazing Race, which launches this week.

Hudak said Allie is known for getting great air on her tricks. Her accomplishments are all the more remarkable since she got a late start compared to the teens who dominate the sport. With that maturity came a confidence to choose her own path.

“She didn’t follow the trends. She doesn’t hold back,” Hudak said. “She’s looking at the mark she wants to make.”

The U.S. team is full of talented athletes in halfpipe skiing, so Hudak says making the team will be tough, but Allie can pull it off.

“She has the skill set and the bag of tricks to make it happen,” Hudak said. “I have a lot of respect for her.”

Fear is part of the sport

As Allie prepares to ski into the pipe, she focuses, picking her track and breathes deeply. As she gathers her courage, she shuffles her skis on the snow, like a bull pawing the dirt. Then she heads down the slope to gather speed and plunges into the pipe.

“Every single day, I’m scared. Every day,” Allie said.

She’s one of the few women in halfpipe skiing who’s willing to send herself upside down.

“I think I’m a masochist by nature. And I’ve been a perfectionist my whole life. There’s a very stubborn little girl inside of me who has a hard time accepting the word, ‘no,’” Allie said.

If someone tells her she can’t do a trick, she’s all the more motivated to try it.

That’s why Dr. Boublik has been such a great match for Allie. He’s used to working with professionals, serious athletes and weekend warriors alike. So, he didn’t nix Allie’s decision to switch from lacrosse to skiing.

“When I told him what I was going to do, he giggled and shook his head,’’ Allie said.

Fortunately, when she’s skiing and jumping correctly, she lands at the perfect angle where the pipe catches her and sends her flying again – a little like a kid on a swing.

“It’s not this continual pounding, cutting and changing direction that I was doing on the lacrosse field,” Allie said. “He 100 percent understands that I’m an athlete.”

Doctor’s mission: help athletes succeed, whatever the sport

There have been other injuries. And Boublik has been there to put Allie back together.

Back in 2013, when she was first practicing her jumps, she was training on a trampoline one day when she landed completely wrong on her right ankle.

“I was trying to go higher and higher and coming down with one foot landing on the trampoline and one foot off. All my weight went on the right side and I just felt an explosion,” Allie said.

She has had plenty of practice and is now the perfect patient who diligently do her part to get well.

Boublik has been caring for Allie since she was in high school.

“What’s impressed me about her is not just her inherent athletic ability, but her energy and her incredible resilience in the face of so many injuries that she has overcome,” said Boublik, who is also the team physician for the Denver Broncos.

When Allie told him she planned to carve out a career in a new sport, he immediately supported her.

“Our goal when we’re looking after athletes – whether they want to get back to their sport or get into a new sport – is to help them succeed,” said Boublik, an assistant professor of orthopedics for the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“Knowing Allie, I’m not surprised that she became extremely adept at halfpipe very quickly. At the same time, I’ve always been relieved to see that she lands her tricks. You always hold your breath a bit,” Boublik said.

He’s eagerly watching as Allie tries to make the Olympics.

“A lot of our athletes are driven. A lot of our athletes are resilient. Even in that unique group, Allie stands out,” Boublik said.

‘Toughest girl’ in halfpipe skiing’

The timing of the recent injury in New Zealand was tough.

“I was feeling great and my tricks were coming along. Everything was coming together,” Allie said.

The fall came on a relatively easy move.

Allie got the break in her arm treated, and now has a plate and 9 screws in her arm. She has a long scar and wears a brace when she skis. Two weeks after the break, a powerful infection took root in her arm. She had to be hospitalized for seven days and dealt with four surgeries to clean out the wound in her arm. Altogether she’s had 12 surgeries during her 27 years.

“The timing was terrible,” said Allie’s boyfriend, Peter Olenick, a former halfpipe skier and X Games medalist, who is now coaching the South Korean Olympic team. “But she’s coming back and she’ll be better than she ever was. This puts more pressure on her, but she’s feeling good again.”

The couple lives in Carbondale and both spend much of their time on the road finding good training spots and traveling to competitions.

The boys call her ‘A-Dog’

Among the young skiers Allie trains with are teen boys from the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. Tristan “Taz” Feinberg, 14, has come up with a nickname for Allie. He calls her “A-Dog.”

“I just said it one day and it stuck,” Feinberg said.

Earning a moniker and praise from fearless boys is a tribute in a sport where youth, style and innovation matter. Feinberg said Allie “will send,” meaning she’s willing to try to new tricks like 9s or 900-degree spins.

“She’s not a wimp,” Taz said. “I’ve never really seen that in a girl. She’s probably one of the toughest skiers I know.”

When the two pivotal halfpipe skiing competitions get underway this month, along with Allie’s family, medical team and Olenick, there will probably be a big group of young boys cheering for Allie. Listen closely and you’ll hear what they’re saying.

“Go A-Dog!”