KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Alex Deibold stood at the top and gave no thought to the five snowboarders around him, each of whom seemed to have infinitely more business in the starting gate than the 27-year-old rider from Vermont.
“I wasn’t thinking about the podium at all,” Deibold explained later. “I was just thinking about the hard work that I put in and what I had to do to get to that finish line.”
Technically, these were Deibold’s second Olympic Games. He was there in Vancouver, too, but only as a member of the snowboard team’s support staff. He helped wax and prep boards, stuck on the sideline as his friends and 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 and winning a bronze medal Tuesday. When he crossed the finish line at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, he was immediately mobbed by teammates who know better than most how far and how improbable Deibold’s journey seems, from wax to bronze in four punishing years.
“We have people that have been faster, that you expected more from. . . . He puts in as much or more work than anybody,” said Peter Foley, the U.S. snowboarding head coach. “It’s just cool to see him be able to ride his best and have it pay off. It’s magic.”
Deibold’s results four years ago weren’t good enough to earn a spot on the team, but coaches invited him to come along and support his teammates by assisting the team’s wax technician. They stayed up late preparing the snowboards, applying wax, scraping wax, brushing wax — layer after layer. “We do that 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 [there] myself. And it definitely paid off.”
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
Deibold was the least-heralded American in the field Tuesday. He has struggled to reach the podium on the World Cup circuit and the best he had ever finished at the Winter X Games was fourth.
“There’s definitely times when I’ve doubted where I’m at — at the end of the season when you’re broke and trying to figure out how you’re going to pay rent,” he said.
The American favorites were Olympic vets Nate Holland and Nick Baumgartner, but they both bowed out early in the event. Holland, an eight-time X Games medalist, was competing at his third Winter Olympics and for the third time failed to reach the podium.
The top three snowboarders in the heat would advance to the finals, and as the American duo approached the final jump, Deibold and Jacob were riding Nos. 3 and 4, one poised to advance, the other about to step out of his Olympic bindings.
“I knew that I had to be flawless,” Deibold said. “I had to land on my feet and try to be flat all the way across the finish line.”
Deibold wasn’t flawless. But neither was Jacob, who misplayed the final jump. “I just shot it to the moon,” he said.
They both fell on the landing and skidded across the finish line on their backs, a tangled ball of America’s best snowboarders. A photo finish revealed Deibold’s board crossed the line just ahead of Jacob’s, which put Deibold in the final heat.
Mountains of the Olympics
As the morning progressed, conditions worsened. There was a steady drizzle and low visibility. But as always, Deibold was ready for anything. He’d learned to study the finest details, which is why he brought eight boards with him here. He has a reputation on the mountain for being a meticulous worker, a student of the craft. Deibold calls himself a “jack of all trades, master of none.”
“I enjoy the process,” he said.
There were times he has felt overcome by doubts. A hand injury in 2011 required two surgeries. Last year he separated a shoulder and was sidelined for five months. All the while, he watched younger riders surpass him, finding podiums and attracting sponsors.
Suddenly, none of that mattered. In the Olympic finals, Deibold burst through the mountain fog and 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, which allowed Deibold to pass. He cruised through the finish line in third. France’s Pierre Vaultier took first and Russia’s Nikolay Olyunin crossed the line next, but Deibold was thrilled with the bronze. It certainly beats wax.
At a news conference later, he was earnest and reflective and even found time for a slight chuckle.
“I’m going to enjoy not waxing my own snowboards for a little while,” he said