David Wise sold his motorcycle because he knew his appetite for speed might be fed just a little too much on two wheels. Base Jumping? Yeah, he thinks that sounds fun, too. If you called Wise an adrenaline junkie, he couldn’t really argue with you. In fact, the two-time Olympic champion in halfpipe freestyle skiing would probably agree.
He may be self-aware enough to stay away from some risky activities, but he still loves a high-flying life on skis. His family members all went the alpine skiing route, but they knew from a young age David was a jet and his future was in freestyle.
“I started skiing at Sky Tavern. My dad was the president there,” Wise says. “He raced Alpine. My older sisters raced alpine and went on to race in college. That was the pedigree of the family, but that wasn’t for me. What made me fall in love with skiing was the ability to be in complete control while going very fast. I think it was inevitable that I would combine my love for skiing and my love for being in the air.”
Wise has certainly turned that passion into a successful career. Halfpipe skiing debuted in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. He won the gold medal in that inaugural Olympic competition. Four years later he bested the competition to win gold again in PyeongChang, South Korea. He followed back-to-back Olympic wins with a silver medal at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. He’s also a four-time freestyle halfpipe champion at the Winter X Games, including just last year.
While Wise has experienced plenty of success, he’s also paid the price for it in terms of injuries. He’s torn the ACL in his left knee twice, he suffered a spiral fracture of his right femur in 2019, and last spring he tore the ACL in his right knee. This most recent major injury happened on the final competitive run of his 2023 season—halfway around the globe at the World Championships in Bakuriani, Georgia.
Wise figures if he had to get injured it might as well be on the last run, instead of earlier when it would’ve stolen a chunk of his season.
“That was the last contest of the season in March. We’re coming up on nine months (recovery),” Wise says. “Getting injured is never ideal, but if you do get injured, the last run is probably the best time.”
What wasn’t good was an offseason of rehabilitation, building strength and simultaneously training for 2024. And yet, Wise and his long-time trainer Max McManus take it all in stride and embrace the climb. The two have been hard at work over the past nine months prepping the freestyle veteran for the new competitive ski season, which began in early December.
Wise, a graduate of Reno’s Wooster High School, first started working with McManus when he was 13 years old. Five years later, Wise entered the professional ranks. Throughout a 20-year career, they’ve become about as familiar as you can get for an athlete and strength coach. Wise admits his chosen profession can be a costly one, but he’s quick to admit his relationship with McManus has helped him overcome many physical setbacks.
“That’s the fun part, having such a long history training with Max. I’ve been training with Max for 20 years. That makes me feel old,” he quips. “What’s cool is when you know your strength coach so well, it’s like you don’t miss a beat. I had surgery on March 16, and I was back in the gym a week later. It was just like training for a regular offseason. The protocol was adjusted but the timing was the same.”
Wise stressed that the amount of weight and resistance for exercises is much different for training in years where injury rehab is front and center. But as far as when he started prepping for a new season and the goal to be as good as ever by the conclusion of preseason training, that’s all the same. He said the total work is not much different year to year, just the kind of work.
“The rules of the training game are dependent on surgery and healing. Everyone heals at a different rate, but the rule is to not hurt something that’s been repaired,” McManus says. “Capitalizing on the healing rate has so much to do with metabolism. Range of motion, blood flow, all of those modalities go into the curriculum of how to increase the quality and speed of healing.
“If you look at the average recovery of a procedure, in this case an ACL and a third one, more or less it’s like one year. At that point you are structurally there, but are you strong enough to compete at the level you’ve competed? The fact that David knows me so well and where we’re going with this style of treatment, he’s ready to compete in 7-8 months, instead of 12. And we’re not skipping steps. We’re just that good at post-op rehab. We have it down that well and he’s that receptive because he’s staying in great shape.”
And Wise knows a little something about beating rehab’s timing odds. He tore his ACL in April 2012, but was back on the slopes for the X Games in January of 2013. Not only did he turn around and compete in eight months, he won the freestyle ski competition in the halfpipe. Wise proudly points out that is a U.S. Ski Team record for the shortest gap between major surgery and a win.
“When I came back at X Games 2013, everybody laughed, but I laughed all the way to the bank because I won,” Wise says. “This time around, everyone’s been saying I’ll probably be back by mid-February. I say, ‘Did you guys forget I’ve done this before.’ We’re writing our own book here.”
Of course, when Wise turned the cat-quick rehab trick in time for X Games 2013, he was 23. At 33, will his body respond the same way? Even he’s not sure. The Reno native wanted to be back competing against his foes as soon as possible, but he’s still taking a wise approach. He did not compete in the season-opening event in China in early December to give his body a little more time to mend. He waited until mid-December, when the pro circuit came to Copper Mountain, CO. Wise, was right back in the mix, finishing fifth at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix event.
“Our approach to my comeback has not been to get back quickly,” Wise says. “It’s more like, I can, so I will. I get to show people what can be done. Recovery is possible. We have proved it in the past. I feel good, so why not? I don’t feel like I have to be the fastest guy back, but I can be.”
The rehabilitation process from ACL surgery is generally long and arduous, but the way McManus explains it, the process is not overly complex.
“We’ll take notes. We’ll compare the surgically repaired limb to the other limb,” the long-time trainer says. “We’re very thorough before we go to another level of advancement. We don’t fit things into a calendar. We just see if he can pass a test.”
So, with another offseason of rehab and training in the books and a new competitive season underway, what does the future hold for Wise? The married father of two has no immediate plans to slow down. He wants to compete in the 2026 Olympic Winter Games to be held in Milan and Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. While he loves flying through the air faster than any human should while spinning on multiple axes, he says he’ll be ready to move on when his body or the skis tell him to shut it down.
“If you put a gun to my head tomorrow and told me I had to retire from halfpipe skiing, I’d say, ‘OK.’ From 2018 on, when I repeated as a gold medal winner, I’ve told myself I accomplished more than I ever dreamed. The rest has been the bonus realm. And that’s a comfortable space to be in. I approach everything now with an ‘I get to do this’ attitude. I don’t have to. That helps me not be stressed about the end.”
“I don’t want to have this slow fade where I hang on a little too long and people say I should’ve quit earlier. I want to be wise enough to recognize when that time comes, so I can say ‘young athletes, the game is yours now… but we haven’t reached that point yet!”
"What made me fall in love with skiing was the ability to be in complete control while going very fast."
“What’s cool is when you know your strength coach so well, it’s like you don’t miss a beat."