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Northwest Skier With Famous Last Name Hopes To Make Name For Himself In Olympics

A young man from the Northwest with a famous last name hopes to make his Olympic debut in a new medal event at the 2014 Games in Sochi - freestyle skiing in the halfpipe.

Some people 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 1960s and '70s.

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. In case you are wondering, the skiing Barrymore family is no relation to the American theatrical and movie acting dynasty of the same name.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker's son also had a son. Now that grandson is training for the 2014 Olympics in - what else? - freeskiing.

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.

"I was gone so much going to all these big races," recalls Barrymore. "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. So Barrymore joined the local Sun Valley ski team -- known formally as SVSEF - in his junior year.

"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," says Barrymore. "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. "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."

"It's scary, you know," Barrymore says. "Dropping into that big, icy monster is not an easy thing to do."

YouTube video of Wing Tai Barrymore doing laps on a halfpipe. Credit: Wing Tai Barrymore

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.

"It's definitely dangerous, for sure," says Barrymore. "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."

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.