KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The United States began Wednesday with more than twice as many snowboarding medals as any other country at the Winter Games. So good are the Americans in snowboarding, still a relatively new Olympic sport, that by the end of the day a U.S.-born rider had won a gold medal for another country entirely — Russia.
Vic Wild was born and raised in White Salmon, Wash. His parents are from the United States, his mother a longtime schoolteacher and his father retired. He cut his teeth snowboarding under the Team USA banner. But when he won the parallel giant slalom race here Wednesday, the gold medal for Russia was also a black mark for a U.S. Snowboarding program that otherwise has been dominant on the Olympic stage.
Wild's explanation was simple: “Russia is the country that's given me an opportunity to win a medal. If I was still riding for the USSA, I’d be back home.”
The USSA — the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association — doesn’t dedicate the same type of resources to Alpine snowboard racing as it does to snowboarding disciplines such as the halfpipe, slopestyle and other events popularized by the Winter X Games. Wild, 27, competes in the parallel giant slalom and the parallel slalom Olympic events and realized years ago they were low priorities for the USSA.
He is certain that if he had remained in the United States, not only would he have not reached the medal podium Wednesday, but he never would have even made the trip to Sochi.
“The USOC and the USSA do a great job, but not everyone can be happy,” Wild said. “I don’t hold a grudge. I am here now doing what I want to do, and it’s all good.”
No country has enjoyed the same success snowboarding as the United States, which has claimed 24 medals in the sport since it made its debut at the 1998 Olympics. American snowboarders have won five medals at the Sochi Games, matching their mark from Vancouver four years ago.
But the U.S. team had just one entrant in the parallel giant slalom men’s event Wednesday and none in the women’s. The lone American was Justin Reiter, who failed to advance out of the qualification round, posting the 24th-best mark.
“It’s tough to be the only one out here,” Reiter said. “It’s tough to be like a stray dog. Everyone’s talking about the stray dogs in Sochi — yeah, I’m a part of Team USA, but I feel like I’m on my own.”
U.S. Snowboarding sent a congratulatory tweet to Wild on Wednesday afternoon, saying, “We have always respected Vic’s decision to ride for Russia & are happy for his success in #Sochi.”
Wild grew up in the sport, competing under the U.S. banner with Olympic aspirations. But with little to no funding, Wild started contemplating walking away from the sport entirely. A Russian coach first proposed that he instead compete under a Russian flag, and considering the lack of support he felt at home, it made perfect sense to Wild.
“They have a good budget, a good team and they needed a good male rider,” he said.
He obtained citizenship by marrying his girlfriend, Russian snowboarder Alena Zavarzina, in 2011, then moved to Moscow and began training with the kind of resources, support and coaching that was never available to him in the United States.
“They take care of everything for me,” Wild said. “All I can do is try to pay them back with results.”
And that’s essentially how he ended up in the mountains outside of Sochi on Wednesday, representing an adopted homeland.
Wild posted blazing times all day and won gold over Switzerland’s Nevin Galmarini. His wife is no slouch on the slopes, either. Zavarzina won bronze in the women’s event. Later, Wild likened the dual victories to a dream and Zavarzina called it the “craziest day of my life.”
“He has had the most incredible journey,” she said. “He deserves it more than anyone.”
Athletes representing newly adopted countries is 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 hockey player Jessica Lutz (Switzerland) and speedskater Anthony Lobello (Italy).
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
But Wild says his case is unique.
“I'm not like some dude that lives in the United States and decides, ‘Oh man, it’ll be easy for me to go to the Olympics and go to some country that doesn’t do anything’ — some country that doesn’t have any athletes,” he said. “I went the hard way. Russia has lots of good riders.”