KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- David Wise flipped and spun his way to a gold medal with a rock in his pocket, a talisman his wife, Lexi, brought all the way from their home in Reno, Nev. She was merely keeping alive a tradition he’d started. Whenever he goes on the road without her, he brings back a heart shaped rock, his way of “reminding her that I’m thinking about her.”
“You want the best rock you can find,” he explained at the bottom of the halfpipe late Tuesday night, which is why he’ll sometimes throw the first rock away if he sees a better one.
But sometimes you just have to go with the uglier rock.
The skiers who dropped into the pipe for this competition wanted very much to make a wonderful first impression. This was the Olympic debut of their event, a big deal for the free-skiing movement. They wanted everything to be beautiful. Instead, halfpipe skiing showed up for its debutante ball soaking wet, breaking out, not its best self.
Of course it was lovely to finally see snow falling at these heretofore-tropical Games. But the timing was poor for the practitioners of this sport. Snow in the pipe -- particularly the chubby flakes falling on the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park much of Tuesday evening -- slows the skiers down, robbing them of amplitude, which prevented many from throwing their most ambitious tricks.
Wise took gold Tuesday with a series of tricks he described as “Run C combined partly with Run B.”
Don’t be deceived. He’s the three-time defending X Games champ and was a heavy favorite in Sochi (although that status wasn’t much help to Shaun White, Bode Miller, Shani Davis and others). Wise’s safety run is still a monster; this one included two variations on the Holy Grail of this sport: the double-cork 1260 -- a pair backflips wrapped in 3 ½ off-axis rotations.
While he reported feeling some disappointment at not being able to throw down “the epic Sochi run” he’d planned, Wise didn’t look particularly disheartened on the top step of the podium.
That he was the sole American on that podium -- Canada’s Mike Riddle and France’s Kevin Rolland took silver and bronze -- came as at least a mild surprise.
Team USA rolled into the pipe with a murderer’s row of talent. Wise, a relative codger at the age of 23, “is kind of the dad of us,” said 17-year-old Aaron Blunck, one third of the so-called “teenage triple threat”: Blunck, Lyman Currier and Torin Yater-Wallace, all of whom hail from Colorado, train together, and have pushed each other to dizzying heights. Each has the 1260 double cork in his arsenal. After the slopestyle skiing guys took all the medals last week, there was chatter that Team USA’s halfpipe skiers also had a strong chance to sweep.
Coming into the finals, a sweep remained a possibility … for Canada, France and New Zealand, each of which sent three skiers to the finals. Team USA, thought to own this event, sent two. Wise made it easily; Blunck, barely. He was the last of 12 finalists to get in. Blunck finished seventh and afterward sounded just happy to be there.
The trio is sure to make more of a splash in four years. Give them time. That was the lesson to be drawn from Christy Wise, one of David’s twin sisters, who stood in the snow and sleet cheering their brother along with Lexi and her in-laws.
It was only “two or three summers ago,” Christy recalled, that she and her twin, Jessica, were ready to talk their little brother into getting a day job or at least going to summer school. Yes, he won, “but never at the big events.” He won enough money to travel to international competitions. His sisters concluded, “David’s gotta decide what kind of job he wants.”
But Wise earned $25,000 for winning at the X Games in 2012. Better endorsement offers came in. But the key to his reaching the level he now occupies, all the Wises concur, was his marriage to Lexi and the arrival of their daughter Nayeli two years ago.
“Nayeli came along,” Christy said, “and he stopped finding so much of his worth in skiing.” Instead, “he just started to relax a little bit, realized who he was, and that’s when he started doing well.”
Fatherhood has given him perspective and balance. As a young dad, said Wise’s own father, Tom, “he learned to just chill. He’s going out and enjoying competitions, not overdoing it.”
Tom is an old ski racer whose children raced first for the Mt. Rose ski team on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, then for Alpine Meadows in California. Christy and Jessica were college ski racers at the Air Force Academy and the College of Idaho. While David had fun trying to keep up with them, he would always peel off into the terrain park. “Finally,” recalls Christy, now a captain in the Air Force, her parents “let him quit racing and go over to the park full time.”
He cultivated tricks in the pipe with the same fearlessness he and Christy displayed around the house. After seeing the movie Mary Poppins, she recalled, they took turns jumping off the roof with an umbrella.”
Small wonder then that Wise went on to master the double cork 1260s that are now de rigueur in big contests. “The right side double cork 1260 has been a huge advantage for me for the last couple years,” Wise said after his win. “To see three guys put it down tonight was awesome.”
If seriously pushed, he was prepared to escalate. He tantalized with talk of never-before-seen tricks which, on account of the elements, remained un-thrown. On this night, Wise didn’t need them. He went with the less attractive rock and turned it into a metal.