KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — COLUMN | The moment gold was clinched, the people around Tom Wise broke into a chant of, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” And then an impromptu version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” began, the snow falling as they sang.
For the first time in my career, I joined in.
“This is unreal,” Tom, the father of David Wise, said, tearing up after his son braved the elements, held off the best halfpipe aerialists in the world and captured the first Olympic gold in the event. “Wow, he did it. He really did it.”
I didn’t know what to say to my father’s cousin at that very moment. He didn’t know what to say.
Tom Wise is a tough man, but a kind, good one. His father was a football coach and a former NFL lineman, and even though I had not seen him in years he drove several hours to my father’s funeral almost a year ago today to pay his respects.
When his son won gold Tuesday night I went to congratulate him. The pull-in hug morphed into an emotional bear hug of a good 15 seconds, and in that moment there was no barricade between this member of the media and the fans – there was just a knowing, familial embrace.
And tears from a father, whose son had done all the right things and been rewarded, whose son is my second cousin, Olympic champion. Man, it feels amazing just typing that.
“The one thing about David is, beyond being a world-class skier, he’s a better person — a great son, father and husband,” Tom said. “That stuff is more important to him. He’s a great representative for his sport and his country, someone who cares about others in a way that people can really get behind.”
“Oh, and he’s a gold medalist, too,” he said, laughing. “I forgot that part. This whole thing is so unreal. You just never think of a day like this coming when your son is cruising down the mountain at 4 years old.”
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My cousin won gold — and now my solemn duty is to hold a giant Popsicle stick with a giant baby’s head on it.
I probably should explain that one better.
“You have to make sure Nayeli gets to him,” Alexandra (Lexie) Wise says.
Lexie is married to David. She crafted a homemade fathead on a stick of their 2-year-old daughter because Nayeli is home in Reno, Nev., while her father is spinning four rotations in the air on his skis out of a slushy, dangerous halfpipe.
I was made the courier of the baby’s head on a stick.
The rest of David’s immediate family is here — mom Kathy, twin sisters Jessica and Christy — and they have made me hold the homemade fathead face because they are talking to Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, ESPN, Yahoo, NBC, the Reno Gazette-Journal and other media outlets around the world.
I will have to wait because America officially has a new action-sports hero. This is okay.
No sense in getting into the double-corks and 900s and 1080s David threw down, because it would just take time away from telling you that before a great athlete won gold, a great human being made the podium.
Aissam “Ice” Dabbaoui, his Venice-based agent who represents action-sports stars, said he always felt my cousin was on the cusp. “He had all these great skills but he couldn’t land,” he said. “He would have trouble at the big events. Then, after Nayeli came, he landed everything. He won almost everything.”
Family made him complete, made him become the star he always wanted to be.
“They really brought it into perspective,” he told me in Reno two weeks ago over lunch. “They could not care less how cool I am, that I am famous in this world or any of that. They just want to know I’m going to be there for them, as a husband, a father and someone who’s always going to love them. To me, that’s more important than skiing. And in a lot of ways, when you know that in your heart, it just takes the pressure off and eliminates the fear I feel when I’m up in the air spinning on those skis.”
This was not a particularly safe night to fly out of the pipe. There had been devastating wipeouts, the most jarring one by American Lyman Currier, David’s teammate and roommate here. Sobbing with family afterward, he appeared to re-injure his surgically repaired knee.
He scored a 92.00 in his first finals run, performing all the tricks and being as technical as he could given the runs came in the first driving snowstorm of the Sochi Games. But he wiped out on his second finals run, and while he had clinched silver, Canada’s Justin Dorey could pull out the run of his life for gold.
Dorey went big and brave, but he also went down.
That was the moment of realization: David Wise had won gold, ahead of Canadian silver medalist Mike Riddle and Kevin Rolland of France, who won bronze.
“I remember my sister and I having a conversation about two years ago, he kept winning but never at the big events,” his sister and my second cousin Christy said. “We always were rooting for him, and started joking with each other, ‘Well, David’s got to decide what kind of job he wants. We’re like pushing him to do summer school. But we still always believed in him.”
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
His pro fork in the road came about two years ago, right after a young couple that had married at 20 and 19 suddenly had another mouth to feed.
David was paying for his travel and expenses, with few sponsors and a dwindling bank account.
He had less than $2,000 to his name when he told himself, “This is it,” before the 2012 Winter X Games. He threw down the run of his life, winning $25,000, paying off bills and charting a course for Sochi 2014.
When he was done speaking to the media, Lexie waited on the other side of the barricade. The U.S. Olympic Committee and others were scurrying him along because competitors have a 60-minute window after competition in which to be drug-tested.
But he wanted to stop. He handed me his skis, his flag and his bouquet of flowers they gave him on the podium that suffices until Wednesday’s medal ceremony in Olympic Park, and he jumped over two barricades, eventually chasing down his wife. I would call it a hug but it was more of a chest-high form tackle, both of them falling to the ground in each other’s arms.
His sisters joined in the scrum. NBC got it all, and I’m sure will show the footage in prime time.
I will probably be the one in the background holding a Popsicle stick fathead of Nayeli.
Sometimes parts of your life just come together. Stars align. Your job and your personal life coalesce. And you find yourself in this moment, this perfect universe — one big snow globe where everyone is happy and laughing and even though you forgot your gloves and these giant flakes are still falling, and the temperature is approaching freezing, you don’t feel cold.
Because your family is near. And after all the medals, the adulation and the benefits of becoming an Olympic champion, really, what else is there but being close to the ones you love on one of the most special nights in your life.
I imagine that’s how David Wise felt Tuesday night. I know I did.