American freestyle skier David Wise swept up the side of a halfpipe at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games on Thursday, his body twisting and contorting through a series of airborne tricks.
His first two runs had been wipeouts. To defend his gold medal, Wise needed a Herculean third act to woo the scoring judges.
He got it, and as he stuck the final landing it was the voice of Hayden native and NBC ski commentator Luke Van Valin that hailed the victory to millions around the world.
“Down into the bottom, does he have the double-cork 1260?” Van Valin exclaimed as Wise maneuvered 17 feet in the air before plunging back to Earth. “Yes!”
Quick-witted and convivial, Van Valin’s voice has provided commentary for more than a dozen events during the past two weeks. It is the 34-year-old’s second Winter Games appearance.
In a video from 2014, NBC’s then-Winter Games host Bob Costas can be seen sending a live feed back to Van Valin in Sochi, Russia.
Last week, it was host Mike Tirico sharing air time with the Lakeland High graduate.
“I guess you can say I’ve made the 9-year-old version of myself pretty proud,” Van Valin joked Friday by phone as he boarded a flight back to his Denver home. “Pyeongchang was pretty sweet. Everyone kind of congregated to certain areas and had a lot of fun. We crushed a lot of Korean barbecue.”
Van Valin, the son of Kootenai County Magistrate Judge Timothy Van Valin, didn’t stick around South Korea for the closing ceremony after his assignments.
Instead, the former pro skier and current Real Estate developer hurried home to his wife, Caitlyn, and their two young children.
The Van Valin of eight years ago – a then-shaggy-haired Winter X Games analyst who was still pulling off monster tricks of his own – probably would have stayed for the duration, he said.
“Time away from home is more difficult these days because of family,” he said. “And I’ve been doing this announcing thing for about 11 to 12 years. That’s almost kindergarten through senior year, man.”
It was during Van Valin’s senior year of high school in 2002 that the prospect of becoming a professional skier first surfaced.
Van Valin’s two older brothers, Nate and Tim Jr., both went on to Whitworth University, where they played football and earned degrees. The youngest brother had other aspirations.
“I remember when Luke came up to me and said, ‘Dad, I don’t think I want to go to college,’” Timothy Van Valin said. “‘I want to get into pro skiing.’
“So I said, ‘OK, let me help you pack.’ Growing up, he was like an otter, because all they do is eat, play and sleep.”
Van Valin was able to leverage his play into a career.
He attempted some of his most harrowing tricks on the powder of Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint before moving to California, where he frequented Mammoth Mountain and the Sierra Nevadas. He later moved to winter sports haven Park City, Utah.
Sponsors soon piled up, and he was featured in prominent skiing publications and videos, including Powder and Level 1 Productions. He competed in the U.S. Open, the Gravity Games and the Condide Invitational in France.
It was at the 2006 U.S. Open in Vail, Colorado, that he got his first crack at the microphone. Van Valin failed to make it into the finals, but the event needed a last-minute replacement emcee, and Van Valin volunteered.
Winter X Games play-by-play man Chris Ernst noticed the North Idaho kid, Van Valin said, ultimately helping him get his foot in the door.
Just a few years later, a Winter X-Games article on ESPN.com dubbed Van Valin the most recognizable voice in freestyle skiing. When he interviewed snowboarding icon Shaun White at the 2010 X-Games following an impressive run, Van Valin’s humor showed.
“Do you just let the hair flail and strum the electric guitar, play a little ‘Free Bird’ and decide what (trick) to do next, or what?” Van Valin asked a long-haired White after his impressive, trick-filled run.
White fed off Van Valin’s fun energy.
“I put the top down, dude. I drive it like I stole it,” White replied.
NBC liked Van Valin’s Winter Olympics debut enough in 2014 the network hired him to cover beach volleyball at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
Timothy Van Valin says Luke gets his speaking talent from his mother, Debbie Van Valin, who helped her husband with his private attorney office in Rathdrum before he became a judge in 2015.
She said family and fellow Kootenai County residents have relished seeing Luke on television.
“It’s just so exciting for us,” Debbie Van Valin said. “We’re very proud of him and love that he gets to experience these things.
“I keep running into people around town who say ‘We saw Luke on TV at the Olympics.’ He’s drawn such a network of people.”
Her husband is just as proud.
“He has such a spiritual base,” Timothy Van Valin said. “His brothers always say he falls into good stuff, which he did. And he worked his way up on his own and without a college degree. He has a gift.”
Van Valin visits his family and friends in North Idaho a couple of times a year, he said, and when he tells some of the world’s most prominent skiers and snowboarders where he’s from, he says the response is the same.
“They say ‘Yeah, I hear Coeur d’Alene is pretty rad,’” Van Valin said. “I’ve been on ski mountains all over the world, and Schweitzer still amazes me.”
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