Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Action Sports [Print without images]

Friday, December 28, 2012
Updated: November 4, 12:20 PM ET
What's wrong with this image?

By Derek Taylor
ESPN The Magazine

THERE'S A LINE for the Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain in Colorado. It's around 9 p.m., and the last event of the Winter X Games 2012 -- the men's snowboard superpipe final -- has just wrapped up. A bouncer holds a list in his hand, The List, and no one gains entrance unless his name checks out. Some 3,200 feet above the base, the Sundeck glows green with a clawlike M projected over the entrance, and it looks less like a ski lodge than a supervillain's secret lair.

Welcome to Monster Energy drink's annual Top of the World party, one of a few private sanctuaries around the mountain resort town where the X Games elite go to let loose. One champion who isn't there, however, is David Wise, even though the day before was the biggest of his career: He won gold in ski superpipe. But tonight, while his competitors are raging into the wintry January night in a neon-green haze of go-go dancers, DJs and caffeinated vodka drinks, he's already on a plane home to Reno, Nev., to spend a few days with his family before the next competition.

David Wise
Wise won a bronze medal at Winter X in March in Tignes, France.

The ravelike atmosphere has never been Wise's scene. To celebrate his gold-winning day, the then-21-year-old, along with his wife, Lexi, his 4-month-old daughter, Nayeli, his father and some friends had dinner at the U.S. Snowboarding team's house, then retired to a sponsor's rental home. "All things considered, it was a pretty mellow night," he says. He was in bed by 1 a.m.

But a devoted dad isn't exactly the image action sports brands -- and not just those who sell energy drinks -- use to reach the 14- to 24-year-old demographic. That group relates more to the X Games party scene, where rituals include tearing off each other's shirts, chugging beer from a shoe (the sanction for spilling a drink) and the 10 percent rule, for which the contest winner has to spend 10 percent of his prize money at the bar.

"David Wise is a very good halfpipe skier. He's also very vanilla," says a ski industry insider and expert on athlete-sponsor relationships. "He should be the favorite to win Olympic gold in Sochi, and nobody is talking about him."

Gabe Schroder of Smith Optics, Wise's sponsor since 2006, doesn't buy the "vanilla" classification. "I guess it all depends on the vibe of your company," he says. "Smith is a humble brand."

Wise, meanwhile, has spent his life skiing the Tahoe resorts near his Reno base -- Northstar is about 45 minutes away -- and hanging with a social circle disconnected from the "bro" network where professional relationships are forged. "I was never good at self-promotion," he says. "I just like to ski, and I just worked hard at skiing. But it is difficult for me to see guys who I've been just as successful as from a results standpoint go out and get big contracts."

David Wise
A devoted dad isn't necessarily the image brands use to reach the 14- to 24-year-old demographic.

And yet Wise doesn't seem too concerned with changing his image. Like when he showed up for his TV interview after winning gold last January. He didn't cock a flat-brimmed hat so the cameras would catch the logo just right. He didn't pull his hood up and place a branded bandanna over his face. When the newly crowned best halfpipe skier in the world sat down in front of the bright lights, he bounced his baby girl in his lap while she beamed a smile identical to his.

"If I was to write the plan for my life," he says, "I wouldn't have said I'm going to have a wife and a baby before I win X Games." But the truth is, Wise's skiing didn't take off until after Nayeli was born. He struggled through recovery in 2010 after an ACL injury in 2009, enduring a 2010-11 season in which he never found his form in contests that mattered. It wasn't until 2012 that Wise finally put it all together, showcasing his amplitude and the progressive tricks that bookend his runs. After winning the ski superpipe at Winter X, he went on a tear that included wins in the next two major competitions -- the Dew Tour stop in Utah and the U.S. Grand Prix in Mammoth, Calif. "He had all the tricks a while ago," says his agent, Aissam "Ice" Dabbaoui. "I think his struggles were mental -- going to comps and sketching on tricks he was already good at. I feel his family was the click."

Still, despite his domination last season, Wise has not cashed in. He's never moved from Reno, where he met Lexi at a church camp in high school and where their parents are all close by. Their rented house is an odd mix, a family home accented with reminders of its days as a bachelor pad, when Wise shared it with two roommates. In the backyard, a dartboard is nailed to a tree, and there's a foosball table in the basement. The upstairs is neat and well maintained, if in need of paint. And downstairs the drywall has been cut away four feet up from the floor, the aftermath of a flood 15 years ago. "My landlord keeps telling me it'll flood again. We've thought about buying a place, but the rent here is so cheap, and we like the neighborhood," Wise says.

For a kid who likes to ski, Wise is doing pretty well. But for a professional athlete who won his sport's biggest trophy last year, he's getting minor league pay. The top professional halfpipe skiers pull in upward of half a million dollars in combined endorsements from the likes of Target, Toyota and Nike. Wise's take-home is solidly in the five-figure range with sponsorships from 4FRNT, Smith Optics and O'Neill, among others, and prize money brings in around $60,000. Unlike most pros, he also chooses to pay for his own travel, which explains why he'll keep renting a $750 a month house and book a flight with a connection instead of flying direct if it saves $100.

But things may change for Wise, or someone like him, after the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, where halfpipe and slopestyle skiing will make their debuts. Those young disciplines will suddenly be on the world stage -- and brands will be reaching for a broader, more mature audience. Back in 1998, snowboarding experienced this shift after making its Olympic debut at Nagano. Since then Shaun White has gone mainstream, signing sponsors such as Stride gum, Ubisoft and BFGoodrich Tires.

Wise seems to be peaking for Sochi at just the right time. "For the Olympics, I want to be the best representation of this sport -- to show people what I think pipe skiing should look like. For me, winning doesn't have to be a goal -- it is already part of who I am. I have always been hungry to be at the top level, one step, one trick or one foot ahead of the rest."

Until then, Wise says his lifestyle has kept him humble. "We buy groceries like anyone else," Lexi adds. "We pay for heat and we pay for lights. But we really try to focus on living outside of ourselves and serving other people. It's not like we spend on expensive cars or expensive trips."

And that's not likely to change, no matter how big the deals get.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.