KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- He didn’t have to wear the hat. The hat was optional. But, like a NASCAR driver eager to please his sponsors, Vic Wild put it on anyway.
Walking with his fellow medalists to the flower ceremony, clad in the cubist and headache-inducing trousers of the host nation, Wild also rocked a ballcap that said, above the bill: Russia.
This is not a guy second-guessing himself. Wild, a 27-year-old from White Salmon, Wash., is not trying to have things both ways. Three years ago, he married fellow alpine snowboarder Alena Zavarzina. He is now a Russian citizen, and he is owning it.
He has embraced this country, and its culture, and -- as will happen when the adopted son brings home two gold medals in four days -- he has been embraced in return.
“Molodets! Molodets!” the delirious crowd chanted for him at the bottom of the course Saturday. Asked what that meant, a mustached 40-something replied with a shrug, “Best guy.” An Olympics interpreter added this nuance: “It means ‘A person who does everything well.’”
Wild is nearly as adept a diplomat as he is a snowboarder. While he went out of his way to praise the U.S. Snowboarding Association -- “I’m stoked for them. They’ve done a great job at these Olympics. They’re amazing” -- he also made it clear that the USSA’s near-total neglect of his discipline, alpine snowboarding, forced his hand.
Wild’s gold medals came in parallel giant slalom and parallel slalom. Each involves two athletes racing down adjacent slalom courses. (The GS course is longer and has more gates.)
Alpine snowboarding is the redheaded stepchild of this sport -- at least in the USA, where it’s simply not considered…cool.
The boards are longer and stiffer, almost mono-skis. Riders wear stiff plastic boots. Ski boots! Less forgivable still, the PGS people compete in skinsuits that would get them laughed out of the halfpipe. (Back in the ‘90s, to protest the skinsuits worn by his competitors, Austrian PGS rider Martin Freinademetz showed up for a race in a gorilla suit. And won.)
Its resources limited, the U.S. Snowboarding Association chooses to concentrate its funds on other disciplines. After years of borrowing and scavenging for funds for equipment, travel expenses and entry fees, Wild had enough. He called USSA officials and told them he was retiring. “I was done snowboarding,” he said. “I had moved on.”
The plan, as Wild put it, was to go to college after choosing a degree to pursue. “Maybe architecture would be cool,” he said.
Eager to gain a toehold in world of alpine snowboarding, however, the Russian snowboarding federation offered Wild its full support. This would only be possible of course, if he were a Russian citizen. Wild checked that box upon marrying Alena in 2011.
So far, this narrative is missing something. An American has essentially defected, choosing the hammer and sickle over U.S. amber waves of grain. Surely, something villainous must be afoot.
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just this simple: A young man’s talent was not valued at home, so he adopted a country where it was -- a country that was home to the woman he loved.
Yet many Americans who remember the Cold War as a constant backdrop may find him a less than sympathetic character -- may find it tempting to label him a turncoat, or worse. But if Hans Van der Bruggen can accept -- and even celebrate -- Wild’s journey, surely they can, too.
When he was 7 years old, back in White Salmon, Wild bullied Hans and has been nagged by guilt about it ever since. Yet there in his in-box, after winning his first gold, was a congratulatory email from Hans.
“I was at a loss for words,” Wild said. “I was like, ‘Dude, even this guy is stoked for me.’” He took the opportunity to apologize to Hans.
Of course Wild will be savaged by some. So far, the critics are a tiny minority. Instead, he’s been embraced by his former hometown. According to a report on Portland, Ore.-based KGW.com, the marquee outside the middle school Wild attended now reads: “Former White Salmon student here, now an Olympic gold medalist.” No mention of the country for which he won it.
Racing for Russia, Wild is spoiled with superlative equipment. “I’ve got coaches that push me really hard. I’ve got a tech that does my edges and does my wax,” he said. “I hurt my shin pretty bad the other week, and the doctor from the hockey team said, ‘Hey, let me help you.’”
“For Vic,” said Michael Lambert, a Canadian snowboarder who has competed against Wild for a decade, “this is not about a side, not about a country. It’s about him having the opportunity to be the best he could, and taking it.”
Lambert beat Wild the first time they went head to head, but in Saturday’s opening round, the newly-minted Russian flipped that script. “He was riding hot,” said Lambert, by way of explanation.
Wild was, indeed, on fire until the first run of the semifinals. Mano a mano with dangerous Austrian Benjamin Karl, his board biting deeply into the snow around one of the “stubby gates,” he lost an edge, drifting toward the barricade, his chance for a second gold medal shot.
It should have been, at least. In each round, riders take two runs down the course. After one run, Wild trailed Karl by 1.12 seconds -- which should have been an insurmountable deficit in a 30-second slalom.
For their second race, Wild came down through the blue gates, to the racer’s right, a track that running a half-second or so quicker. Less than halfway down, he pulled even, incredibly. “By the time we rolled onto the pitch” -- the steeper, finishing section -- I knew I had a chance.”
This was the 17th day of world-class competition at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. At no point had the noise in the grandstands even approached the bedlam that ensued when Wild crossed the line .04 seconds ahead of the Austrian. It wasn’t Chris Davis returning a missed field goal 109 yards to win the Iron Bowl. But it was damned close.
The final was anticlimactic, truth be told. Even before Wild dispatched the strapping Slovenian Zan Kosir by .11 seconds, everyone in the place knew who was the molodets, the best guy.