KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Vic Wild was born and raised in White Salmon, Wash. His parents are both from the United States, his mother a longtime school teacher and his father retired. He learned to ski there and cut his teeth snowboarding under the Team USA banner. But when he won gold here at the Sochi Olympics Wednesday, the medal was credited to Russia.
So how did this happen? As Canadian rider Jasey-Jay Anderson told Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times, “You don’t go from being an American citizen to a Russian citizen because it sounds cool.”
Wild, 27, competes in the parallel giant slalom and the parallel slalom Olympic events, disciplines that are a low priority for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, which pours more resources into events featured in the Winter X Games, such as the halfpipe and slopestyle. The United States had just one entrant in the parallel giant slalom men’s event Wednesday and none in the women’s. With little to no funding, Wild thought he was finished with alpine snowboard racing several years ago.
“I wasn’t going to continue banging my head against the wall,” Wild told the Wall Street Journal.
As this NBC story details, a Russian coach first proposed that Wild begin competing under a Russian flag, and when Wild married his girlfriend, Russian snowboarder Alena Zavarzina, in 2011, he obtained the citizenship necessary. He moved to Moscow and began training with the kind of resources, support and coaching that was never available to him back in the United States.
“I told everybody in the Russian snowboard federation: If you guys take me, you’ll never regret it,” Wild told NBC’s Nick Zaccardi.
And that’s essentially how he ended up in the mountains outside Sochi on Wednesday, representing his wife’s homeland. He posted blazing times all day and won gold over Switzerland’s Nevin Galmarini. (His wife, Zavarzina, is certainly no slouch on the slopes either. She won bronze Wednesday in the women’s event.)
If there’s any resentment on the mountain, it’s not apparent from other riders, who watched Wild struggle to keep his dream alive riding with the United States.
“The way the U.S. treated Vic, I can’t blame him at all,” Anderson told Dillman and other reporters Wednesday. “It’s a huge move for an athlete to do that, except he was left in the cold, put out in the cold. Every bad word in the book was done to him.”
The U.S. federation also tweeted its support yesterday:
Congrats to Vic Wild on his PGS gold. We have always respected Vic’s decision to ride for Russia & are happy for his success in #Sochi.— ussnowboarding (@ussnowboarding) February 19, 2014
Athletes representing newly adopted countries are hardly a new phenomenon. Basketball player Becky Hammon was born in South Dakota but has played for the Russians in two Summer Games. Russia has lost Olympians, too, as snowboarder Iouri Podladtchikov competed for Russia in 2006 but for Switzerland in 2010 and again here in Sochi, where he won gold in the halfpipe.
These Sochi Games feature only a handful of American-born athletes competing for other countries, including Wild, hockey player Jessica Lutz (Switzerland) and speedskater Anthony Lobello (Italy).