By David Fong
February 21, 2014
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Facing a nearly impossible deficit against a four-time world champion he’d never outraced, all the unorthodox choices snowboarder Vic Wild made to keep his career alive converged over 30 glorious seconds of perfection.
His banged-up body patched together by the best doctors his adopted country can provide, his perfectly assembled board riding like a lightning bolt, his newfound fans screaming his name and waving a very different kind of red, white and blue, the man who eschewed his homeland for his heart, made Olympic history.
Gold for Russia. Again. And maybe more than a little vindication too.
Wild rallied to victory in the men’s parallel slalom on Saturday, stunning Austria’s Benjamin Karl in the semifinal then edging Zan Kosir by .11 seconds to cap four dizzying days that validated his decision three years ago to marry Russian snowboarder Alena Zavarzina and move to Moscow with his talent in tow.
The 27-year-old native of White Salmon, Wash., but now residing in Moscow won the parallel giant slalom Wednesday then bookended it with an even more stunning triumph in the Olympic debut of the shorter, trickier parallel slalom race.
The roars of “Vitya” still ringing in his ears after a raucous flower celebration, Wild exhaled; the pressure valve that’s been a fixture in his life since he left the U.S. was finally released.
“I continued snowboarding because I thought I could do something special,” he said. “I thought I had never reached my potential (in the U.S.) and I wanted to see how good I could get. That’s why I’m a Russian.”
Yep, a “full-on Russian,” as his brother, Mike, calls him.
One who was burned out and frustrated by a lack of attention from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, which pours more resources into the halfpipe and slopestyle, where Americans captured five medals.
Wild’s relationship with Zavarzina led to a Siberian wedding in 2011. His new passport provided better support from a lightly regarded Russian team anxious to make a splash in Sochi.
It culminated in the kind of success Wild refused to dream about while competing for his native country. He even received congratulations Saturday from President Vladimir Putin, who praised Wild for proving that “sports fate smiles on the most talented, driven and strongest in spirit.”
Wild’s win in the PGS came 10 minutes after his wife earned bronze in the same event. Zavarzina didn’t make it out of the elimination round on Saturday, but was there at the finish line as her husband put together the run of a lifetime.
A rare miscue in the first round of the semifinals left Wild trailing Karl by 1.12 seconds — the equivalent of a football team losing by 10 with 1 minute left. Sprinting down the decidedly faster blue course, Wild’s hand crossed the line a scant .04 ahead of Karl. Wild flexed in euphoria after finally topping the 2010 silver medalist.
“I thought this would be a great place to beat him for the first time,” Wild said. “It’s one of best experiences I ever had on the snowboard.”
He did it on a busted shin that received treatment from the Russian Olympic hockey team doctor — and on a snowboard assembled by a wax technician who turned it into a five-foot bullet.
Though Wild understands the mixed reaction back home, he refuses to let it get him down.
“No matter what you do in your life, people are going to hate you,” he said. “That’s just the way it is, but I’ve had so much support.”
The kind he couldn’t find while skiing for USSA. Wild talked about having to travel with the Japanese team on the road while competing as an American and knows all too well the plight of former U.S. teammate Justin Reiter, who failed to make it out of qualifying on Saturday.
Reiter sometimes lives out of the back of his truck to keep expenses down, but he was there between races for Wild, offering advice as the number of racers dwindled from 16 in the early heats to one gold medalist.
Before Wild, Chris Klug was the closest thing there was to a famous American-born snowboard racer. Klug’s big day came 12 years ago at the Salt Lake City Games when he won a bronze medal — after having a liver transplant 19 months earlier.
“Those should’ve been American gold medals,” Klug said.
However, the USSA doesn’t regret putting its money where the medals are.
“Vic found a very unique opportunity with Russia in the lead up to Sochi and took advantage of it,” USSA executive vice president Luke Bodensteiner said. “Good for him and we respect his decision.”
Though Wild’s golden runs will won’t change much in the U.S, the $250,000 he’ll earn from Russia for his work at the Extreme Park will certainly help him and his wife upgrade from their 300-square foot apartment.
“I’m pretty content with my life,” he said. “I’ve got a great wife to go home to. The medals help ease the mind and allow me at least to move and to not be so tight.”
Julia Dujmovits of Austria won gold in the women’s race. Anke Karstens of Germany took silver and teammate Amelie Kober overcame a badly injured elbow to earn bronze.