From Steamboat to Russia: Vic Wild wins gold for host nation
Krasnaya Polyana, Russia — Vic Wild barreled down the parallel giant slalom course at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, knifing through the gates and kicking up the slush of Russian snow.
Down below, Justin Reiter stood with his left hand shielding the sun from his face, his eyes dripping tears, unable to look away from the video board above the stadium.
Unfolding between the two was a story of two best friends, two opposite nations and two snowboarders who have gone at it differently.
Wild, born in White Salmon, Wash., and trained in Steamboat Springs, won a gold medal Wednesday.
The only thing is, Wild won it for Russia.
“I’m so pumped for him,” said Reiter, who was eliminated from Wednesday’s event in the preliminaries. “It’s such an amazing feat, what he’s done. It couldn’t happened to a more dedicated or resilient guy.”
The two met in 1999 and trained together for years in Steamboat. They pushed each other, competing together and against each other in one of the smallest Winter Olympics niche sports, at least as far as the United States is concerned.
That’s thanks in part to a decision several years ago by the United States Ski and Snowboard Association to cut off funding for the Alpine snowboard program.
That move was enough for Wild.
In 2011, he married Russian snowboarder Alena Zavarzina — who won a bronze in the women’s event Wednesday — and became a Russian citizen in 2012.
The lack of support from the USSA “is a sick story,” said Canadian Jasey-Jay Anderson, who won the gold four years ago in Vancouver. “Just talking about it makes me sick. I want Vic to win (today) for that reason.”
In Russia, Wild is supported fully, from his equipment to his training. He and Zavarzina have an apartment in Moscow, and each can focus on snowboarding full time.
“Russia is the country that gave me the opportunity to win this medal,” Wild said. “If I was riding for the USSA, I’d be home with some mediocre job doing something mediocre.”
Wild was clearly the best rider Wednesday, making his way through the icy course in the morning to capture gold in the afternoon. Between each run, he’d stop in the athletes corral and chat with Reiter.
Heading into Wild’s final run, Reiter told him the air temperature was changing and that the snow would harden up.
Wild overcame more than a half-second deficit after his first finals run to win the gold.
“He’s the man,” Wild said about Reiter. “We’re best friends. It’s not easy to find a guy like that.”
Reiter, though, said it’s not like Wild riding for Russia was the lone reason he won the gold medal. Reiter said Wild does just about whatever he puts his mind to.
Years ago, Reiter said, Wild wanted a new plate for his snowboard. So he illegally downloaded a computer-aided design system software, taught himself the program and built the plate.
“The kid goes ‘Rain Man’ on things,” Reiter said. “A lot of people out here are good snowboarders, but nobody has put in more time and effort than that kid. Yeah, he has the support of a country behind him and has an amazing support structure. He took that risk. He walked away and put it all on the line, and to me, that’s what Olympic dreams are made of.”
Reiter’s story is well known. With a lack of funding, he spent time in Park City, Utah, living in his truck to save and train.
On Wednesday, Reiter admitted he was upset with his struggles. But there was genuine sentiment in his voice when he talked about Wild.
When the one-time American, now Russian, snowboarder crossed the line, Reiter turned to his mother, Brenda, and they hugged.
Reiter wasn’t an Olympic champion, but the tears that were pooling at the bottom of his cheeks and just above his chin told another story.
“If he’s not getting what he should be getting from USSA, what is entitled to an elite snowboarder, as a national governing body is responsible for, go represent a country that will support you,” Reiter said. “To coach one of my best friends to becoming an Olympic champion, that’s 50 times as good a feeling. The only thing I can compare it to is if roles were reversed.”
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Editor’s note: The story was updated at 8:33 p.m.