KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The American Dream exists for people like the 27-year-old who crossed the finish line, won his second gold medal of the Sochi Games and celebrated like he couldn't believe it. Because, truth is, he couldn't believe it. When the United States failed him – when it didn't give him the one thing it promises, opportunity – Vic Wild went and found his American Dream in Russia.
And here he was, the toast of Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, making the pretty girls holding the winners' bouquets giggle and the fans chant "Roo-see-uh! Roo-see-uh!" and his competitors hail him for his courage. Vic Wild is no traitor, even if his two gold medals might help swing the final medal table in Russia's favor over the United States.
Actually, the most stereotypically American story of the Olympics might be about an alpine snowboard racer who left for a place that wanted him, made himself a new life and turned into a smashing success.
"Why Vic's a hero," fellow racer Michael Lambert said, "is he's someone that didn't let anything stand in the way."
Wild won the snowboarding parallel slalom race Saturday afternoon, parlaying an incredible come-from-behind win in the semifinals to a gold-medal-winning victory over Zan Kosir by a little more than one-tenth of a second. He became the first snowboarder in Olympic history to win two medals in the same games, his first coming three days earlier in the parallel giant slalom.
Less than 24 hours before the Sochi Games' closing ceremony, Russia led the overall medal table with 29. The United States ranked second with 27. Were he still competing for the U.S., Wild would be the most decorated American Olympian at the Sochi Games – and the athlete who pushed them into the lead.
Instead, the United States Ski and Snowboard Association dissolved its already-underfunded alpine snowboarding program after the Vancouver Games, leaving Wild with a choice: end his career or defect. When he married Russian snowboarder Alena Zavarzina in 2011, Wild applied for citizenship in her country and its greatest perquisite: the support of an Olympic organizing committee that valued alpine snowboarding.
"I would not have snowboarded for the United States," Wild said. "I was done snowboarding. I would have moved on. I would have gone to college. And I would have had a great life. I had another option. The only option to snowboard was to go to Russia and snowboard. I wanted to continue snowboarding, to see how good I can be. I wanted to know I gave it everything I had. …
"I was done. I had called them. I had retired. It has nothing to do with the United States itself. It only has something to do with the nonprofit organization, the USSA. They didn't give me what I needed. That's cool. I'm stoked for them. They've done a great job at these Olympics. They're amazing. They do a great job. But not everybody can be happy. I had to make my decision. And I'm very happy that I did that."
While Wild puts a happy face on the USSA's budgetary choices now, his frustration used to define him among officials who saw him as an enfant terrible, someone who didn't understand alpine's place in the snowboarding power structure. Halfpipe is king, with slopestyle creeping up in importance, and snowboardcross racing third. Thedo Remmelink, Wild's former coach, said the USSA's alpine snowboarding budget was $135,000, well below the level expected of an elite program. The organization spent more than $24.1 million in 2012, according to its latest annual budget report.
Were the USSA to have dedicated, say, $500,000 – about 2 percent of what it devotes to all of its teams – it would have all the standards of a top program: board technicians, equipment testing, physiotherapists, technical coaches, video workers and a well-stocked, deep team. Lambert said funding a high-level team – not just the equipment but lodging, food and event travel – costs between $80,000 and $90,000 per rider annually.
Rather than spend that 2 percent, two golds went to Russia.
"I'm very lucky this all happened," Wild said. "I don't know if I deserve all this luck. This is just too good to be true."
Of course he deserves it. Wild made his luck. For years, he scraped by with no money. He emptied his bank accounts, borrowed from his mom, did anything he could to make a career in a sport he loved. At one point, Remmelink said, he wasn't even allowed to train with other elite snowboarders because he hadn't reached a qualification threshold, which presented something of a chicken-and-egg situation: How could he possibly get better if restricted from accessing the tools to help him improve?
Russia gave him that, a home in Moscow and a renewed vigor. During the first semifinal race against Benjamin Karl, Wild slipped and fell behind 1.12 seconds, an eternity in the short, speedy parallel slalom race.
"You don't come back from 1.12 in a 30-second slalom race," said Wild's brother, Michael.
Only Wild did. He blitzed the course, caught Karl and pulled across the line four-hundredths of a second ahead of him. Never, Wild said, had he beaten Karl. He chose a rather opportune time, one that guaranteed him another medal.
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"He was riding with the self-confidence of an Olympic champion," Karl said. "If you already have the gold medal in your jacket, then you can ride like hell."
All week Wild has ridden like hell, freed, finally, from the constraints of a country that didn't want him. There was nothing political about his choice to become Russian, no statement or message he wanted to send. It was strictly personal. Wild grew up in a country that encourages children to chase their dreams. So he chased his. This wasn't like Victor An, the South Korean speed skating mercenary who joined the Russian team because it paid best and won three gold medals in the Sochi Games. It was purer, sport for sport's sake, achievement his remedy.
"I thought I could do something special," Wild said. "I never reached my potential, and I wanted to see how good I could get. That's why I continued snowboarding, and that's why I'm a Russian."
He's Russian because he wanted this day, this moment, this particularly American-style opportunity that America chose not to let him have. It was his dream come to life.
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