KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The perfect picture is not inside the camera slung around Iouri Podladtchikov's shoulder, not yet. Rarely does he venture anywhere without his Leica and one of the ludicrously expensive lenses through which he views the world. It's his binky and his inspiration, the conduit to capture a life that has taken him everywhere, including here, his homeland, the place where if everything were simple he would be winning a snowboarding gold medal for Russia.
Simple bores Podladtchikov. His mind refuses to work like that. He wants everything to be beautiful: his photographs, his women, his snowboarding tricks, his life. The fashion collective Milk asked for a sampling of Podladtchikov's best photographs to post on its website a few months ago, and he couldn't sleep for three days. The pictures are all black and white. He wants the moments themselves to provide far more illumination than any color might.
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"I want to create something everlasting," Podladtchikov says. Considering what he does with his regular canvas — a 550-foot-long halfpipe pitched downward at 18 degrees with 22-foot-high walls — creativity is the mother of his invention.
Perhaps nobody poses a greater threat to dethroning Shaun White's stranglehold on halfpipe gold than "I-Pod," the 25-year-old who will unleash his latest bit of inspiration during the halfpipe competition on Feb. 11. It is the most difficult, frightening, breathtaking thing ever done inside a superpipe, a two-flip, 1,440-degree-rotating, impossible-to-fathom trick Podladtchikov calls the YOLO Flip. The name is apt: You Only Live Once, the acronym means, and only somebody with such an attitude would dare attempt it.
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The YOLO embodies the Podladtchikov aesthetic, fusing chaos and confusion into brilliance and beauty. Some snowboarders see Podladtchikov as too arrogant for their liking, which is fine. He's comfortable being that comfortable with himself. He wants to share what he does, whether it's snowboarding or photography or anything else, with everybody. It's why perhaps the most chaotic and confusing thing about Podladtchikov — why an elite Russian-born athlete is competing for Switzerland in the Sochi Games — is, to him, neither confusing nor chaotic.
On the contrary, it might be his best chance yet for that perfect picture.
The perfect picture is not Iouri Podladtchikov standing stark naked at a gas station in Switzerland, though it's pretty damn close.
"In this job, you get to travel," he says. "And when you travel, you get to see things. And you want to capture them and take them home. Everybody who gets to travel feels weird just telling stories. Images bring them to life."
The story of this particular image, which was splashed across a Swiss tabloid, gives a fair amount of insight into the ascent of Podladtchikov from nomadic misfit kid to the sort of guy who, you know, pays for gas completely nude, save for the hat covering his nether regions and the timepiece on his wrist.
Podladtchikov was traveling with his best friend, Ruben Cassiano, a DJ in an electro-pop band, and a few girls. Cassiano was driving and Podladtchikov drinking in the back with some women. One thing led to another. Nudity beckoned. The car ran low on fuel. "I wasn't going to get dressed to fill up the gas," Podladtchikov says. Cassiano snapped a picture and uploaded it to Instagram. Virility met virality.
"It was pretty cool," Podladtchikov says, for one because he long dreamed of playing rock star like White, with his riches and notoriety and ubiquity, and here he was, mattering enough that no longer was it a dream.
Podladtchikov rat-a-tatted around Europe as a child, going from his birthplace of Moscow to Sweden to the Netherlands before settling in Zurich around his ninth birthday. His parents were Moscow State University-educated mathematicians, and his dad, Yuri, eventually settled into a geophysics professorship while his mom, Valentina, raised Podladtchikov's older brother, Igor, and his fraternal twin, Vadim.
In Switzerland, Podladtchikov took up with a crew of skateboarders, mastering the basic tricks that would translate so well to snowboarding. No longer was he Yuri, the Russian kid who left his homeland at 3 years of age. He was Iouri, the Swiss kid whose first trip up a mountain 40 minutes from Zurich led to an obsession.
Natural talent showed immediately. Podladtchikov could jump higher than other kids, higher even than some of the Swiss professionals. He took up snowboarding full time at 16, a year before the Turin Games in 2006. Then Russia asked him to come home.
The perfect picture is not of Podladtchikov's face, even if it is the most obviously Russian thing about him, with high cheekbones, azure eyes and perfect symmetry.
It is in flesh alone that Podladtchikov feels Russian. He used to get that question a lot, actually, especially early on in his career, when the Swiss media wanted to know more about this kid with the funny-sounding last name. Podladtchikov hated the question then and hated it even more after Turin, which he calls the worst experience of his life.
He got hurt the night before the competition. The doctors berated him. Already the coaches didn't like him, and whether it's because of his great training foundation in Switzerland or because he was a cocky little bastard, it didn't matter.
"I was on the phone with my mom in tears," Podladtchikov says. "Oh my God. It was horrible. I almost had a nervous breakdown."
Podladtchikov crashed in both runs. His scored a 1.0 in his first trip down the pipe. It was the lowest among the 106 runs by men's snowboarders in Turin. His second time wasn't much better: 13.6. Podladtchikov finished 37th of 44. He went home and vowed never to compete for Russia again.
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Come the Vancouver Games, Podladtchikov had no doubt: He would compete for Switzerland, and his rapid improvement made him a medal favorite. He was then, and remains still, the only competitive snowboarder who can match White's amplitude and spinning acumen. He finished fourth, a disappointment that worsened the next year when he and a longtime girlfriend broke up. For two years, Podladtchikov fixated on her, on the relationship, on what went wrong, until he turned the curiosity inward and started to examine himself.
It was then and there that he tried to figure out who he was and what he was, to look at this question that was so often posed – are you Russian or Swiss? – not as an annoyance, not as an affront, not as a challenge but as a chance to take something so confusing and make it beautiful.
"And I finally found my answer," he says. "I'm 100 percent Russian-blooded, in a physical way, but I get homesick from Switzerland. I can't stay away from home for longer than two to three weeks. My heart is there."
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It's why two years ago he hopped on a tour bus with some friends and hit every skate bowl in the country on a tour he dubbed Iouri and the Kids. When Podladtchikov was 12, he remembers professional skaters showing up at his park and teaching the kids new tricks. He wanted to be that guy now, and better yet, he made sure an ice cream truck joined in to ensure the kids remembered him not just as the famous guy but the famous guy who brought ice cream, which is even greater.
With the Sochi Games approaching — and Team Russia a relative mess, far from the Winter Olympics-dominating teams of the USSR — Podladtchikov's agent, Circe Wallace, wondered whether he would reconsider riding for Russia. His face would be alongside Alex Ovechkin's on ads everywhere. His homecoming would be celebrated with great fanfare.
"They had their chance," Podladtchikov says. "And it's too bad they blew it."
The perfect picture is not a family portrait, no matter how much the Podladtchikov family dabbles in greatness.
Yuri has published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers. Igor and Yuri together won an award for computer-programming excellence last year. Vadim continues to study for an advanced degree. And Iouri? Well, Iouri is the brain that got away.
"In all perfect pictures and perfect stories, people are so happy that their parents always support them," Podladtchikov says. "That never was the fact with me. They never supported snowboarding. Even today, if you get them a little bit drunk so they get out of their comfort, in-front-of-the-camera zone, they would tell you the truth. They think you should work your way through your head."
This bothers him. He says it doesn't, but it's obvious. Beyond the street smarts gleaned from years on the road and the book smarts evident in the four languages he speaks, Podladtchikov has an emotional intelligence that behooves him when it isn't consuming him. Snowboarding. Photography. He wants his parents to understand these things do take intelligence, even if it's a different sort than two professors understand. They told Podladtchikov that "sports is for dumb people" and asked, "What are you going to do, a sports school?" Which he did, yes, paying for the last year and a half of tuition by himself.
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And that still didn't convince them. Turin was about a four-hour car ride from Zurich, and Yuri and Valentina still didn't go to the Olympics to watch him. Only when their friends explained to them the gravity of their mistake — like sports or not, if your kid is in the Olympics, you go — did Podladtchikov's parents admit wrongdoing.
Even if they'll never appreciate what their son does, their stubbornness has abated. Podladtchikov's fingerprint will be displayed forever at a sporting exhibit in Zurich. Nobody else — not even White — can throw the YOLO with the sort of grace and style he did landing it at X Games. Had he not caught a lip and wiped out on his last trick, Podladtchikov might well have received the second perfect halfpipe score in history. White still owns the only one.
"It's hard for them to see," Podladtchikov says. "They're my parents. They know I won't do this forever. And with your head, you can get 100 years old and still work. But they're my parents, so they're allowed to worry about such things. I would if I were them.
"I'm interested in things that last, yes. I'm also interested in things that have a story."
The perfect picture is one Iouri Podladtchikov can't take. It is a Russian-blooded, Swiss-hearted man standing atop a podium with a gold medal hanging around his neck.
It's not a typical picture, either, not one taken by harried photographers elbowing one another out of the way, holding down the triggers on their cameras to click-click-click-clickety-click-click their way into one image that might suit them. It is from the back maybe, like Podladtchikov's image of a runway model for Milk, or composed with perfect light, like his portrait of rider Mikkel Bang.
Nor, in all likelihood, is it of the YOLO, because to capture such a trick in one image does it no justice. Podladtchikov spent the past three years conceiving it, practicing it, failing at it, hitting it and trying to repeat it. He saw Mark McMorris, the best slopestyle snowboarder in the world, throw a cab double 1260 — "cab" means he was riding with his unnatural foot forward and spun backside; "double" is the number of corkscrews, or off-axis flips; and "1260" is three-and-a-half body rotations — off a ramp, and he wanted to do the same with an extra half-rotation.
When Podladtchikov grabbed the nose of his board like McMorris, he kept crashing. So one day, he switched his hand to the middle of the board for a mute grab, and just like that he hit 10 in a row into an airbag. The trick that would beat Shaun White was born. It was so good, White has adopted it himself as a one-up to the Double McTwist 1260 that won him halfpipe gold in Vancouver.
They will twist and spin and flip knowing at any time they could lose themselves, and if they do, their eyes will blur and they won't be able to figure out up from down and the whole world will look like it's in a funhouse mirror. It looks like abstract art, Podladtchikov says, and it's actually rather magnificent until the reality of the crash turns it horribly ugly. That he would push snowboarding to this point — that he would risk his own health — shows how much the YOLO matters to Podladtchikov. It is his creation, and even after Kevin Pearce, perhaps his and White's stiffest competitor in 2010, nearly died after a double cork gone wrong, Podladtchikov wouldn't dare give up the YOLO.
Not only does he want the world seeing it, he wants to give it to Russia, too. Last year, during Sochi's warm-up for the Games, it hosted a halfpipe contest. Podladtchikov didn't have to attach himself to any country. He was riding for himself. And still, the spectators, organizers, everyone at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park seemed to be cheering for him.
"It was gnarly," he says. "This is the cultural difference. In Switzerland, people are neutral. They're very modest. They're cheering, yes. Russians, on the other hand, will die for you if they have to."
Podladtchikov wants to have his cake and eat it, too, and it's difficult to begrudge him that. Perfection is what he seeks in his snowboarding runs, in the photographs he takes, and in the scenarios he dreams up in his mind. He created this moment, the one where the Russian competes for Switzerland, where the unbeatable gets beaten, where his family is there to cheer, where the camera finds the perfect angle and, click, organizes his chaos into something brilliant and beautiful.
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