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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Technically, this was Alex Deibold’s second Olympics. He was there in Vancouver as a member of the snowboard team’s support staff. He stayed up late waxing boards but was stuck on the sidelines as his teammates competed for medals.
Four years later, not only did Deibold manage to qualify for the Winter Games, but he surprised many by racing through a talented snowboard cross field Tuesday and winning a bronze medal in emotional and exciting fashion.
“It feels really good. All that hard work and sacrifice were definitely worth it,” said Deibold, a U.S. flag draped over his shoulders.
The Americans have now won five snowboarding medals at these Sochi Games, more than twice as many as any other country.
Deibold, 27, was not only the most unlikely U.S. contender here but also the lone American to reach the finals. In the semifinals, Deibold and Trevor Jacobs were nearly side-by-side when they hit the last jump on the course. They both fell on the landing and skidded across the finish line. A photo finish revealed Deibold’s board crossed the line just ahead of Jacob’s, which put Deibold in third and allowed him to qualify for the final.
Then in the final, Deibold, a Vermont native who now lives in Boulder, Colo., was riding in the middle of the pack until about three-quarters of the way through the race. France’s Paul-Henri de Le Rue was shaky landing a jump and lost speed, allowing Deibold to pass. He cruised through the finish line in third and was immediately mobbed by teammates.
They know better than most just what Deibold went through to get here. His results four years ago weren’t good enough to earn a spot on the Olympic team, but coaches invited him to come along and support his teammates by assisting the team’s wax tech. They stayed up late prepping boards for the competition, applying wax, scraping wax, brushing wax – layer after layer. “Over and over and over again,” Deibold said.
“It was a pretty grueling experience, but it was definitely one that I was grateful for,” he said. “It was really hard to sit back and watch them enjoy something that I wanted so badly. That moment, I used that as motivation over the last four years to work hard and through my injuries.
“I just reminded myself what it was like to be there and how hard I had to work to get myself. And it definitely paid off.”
Deibold was the least-heralded American in the snowboard cross field. He has struggled to find the podium on the World Cup circuit and the best he’d ever finished at Winter X-Games was fourth. At the most recent X-Games last month in Aspen, Colo., in fact, he failed to even qualify for the quarterfinal heats.
“There’s definitely times were I’ve doubted where I’m at,” he said, “at the end of the season when you’re broke and trying to figure out how you’re going to pay rent and figure that out. But I’ve never done it for the money. I’ve always done it for the love.”
The American favorites, Olympic vets Nate Holland and Nick Baumgartner both bowed out early in the event. Holland, an eight-time X-Games medalist, was competing at his third Winter Games and for the third time failed to reach the podium.
After barely finishing fourth in his semifinal heat, Jacob, 20, placed third in the “small final” consolation race and finished the Olympic competition in ninth place. France’s Pierre Vaultier took gold and Russia’s Nikolay Olyunin won silver.
The event was originally scheduled for Monday at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park but was postponed a day due to fog. Tuesday’s heats took place under a steady drizzle with some visibility issues near the top of the course.