KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – In his world, David Wise is not cool. He is married. (No!) He has a 2-year-old daughter. (How dare he!) He is openly religious. (Heaven forbid!) Pretty much everywhere else in the United States, Wise epitomizes normalcy. To the action-sports community, where monotheism means bowing down to a mountain caked with fresh powder, Wise represents something different altogether.
"A lot of people look at me and say that I am counterculture," he said.
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Wise sat atop a dais at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. An hour earlier, he won the first halfpipe skiing contest in Olympic history, braving awful weather and even worse in-pipe conditions to stomp a pair of double-cork 1260s in his first run and come through as the rare favorite to strike gold in the Sochi Games. To celebrate, Wise jumped two fences, ran toward his wife, Lexi, hugged her, swung her around three times, fell into the snow and laughed. It was sweet and beautiful.
It was also exactly the thing that freeskiing, a sport still in its infancy, does not fully embrace. There is not a war between freeskiing and snowboarding so much as a friendly fight for market share. And David Wise, a 23-year-old who in between the qualifying round and finals Tuesday kissed a giant, blown-up picture of his daughter, Nayeli, does not exactly appeal to the same sort of crowd as Shaun White or Danny Davis or pretty much any snowboarder.
There is something backward about this, yes, that by all accounts a good guy who loves his wife and kid and Christianity and actually spends time in the gym and isn't really down with late-night partying is the freak. It's also the truth, as much as Wise protests, and his gold medal will present a fascinating test case for action sports: Can it – will it – market around someone whose marketability stems from talent rather than persona?
This much is true: He is not Torin Yater-Wallace, the 18-year-old revered among core skiers for his stylish ways. (And he goes on epic burger runs, yo!) Nor is he Aaron Blunck, the 17-year-old who spent much of the Sochi Games courting skier Julia Mancuso, who 12 years his elder, on Twitter. (Pimp!) Nor is he Lyman Currier, the 19-year-old who rounds out the Teenage Triple Threat, or what the other three U.S. halfpipe riders called themselves. (His Twitter handle is @urmotherlovesme!)
Currier crashed twice in qualifying and hurt his knee. Yater-Wallace bombed out in qualifying, too. Blunck made the finals but couldn't crack a score of 80. Wise, in the meantime, put up a 92, added his Olympic gold to a trophy case filled with X Games gold and cemented his dominant position atop the sport alongside such veterans as Canadian Mike Riddle (silver) and Kevin Rolland (bronze).
Plenty of other great athletes are not considered marketable because of personality, looks or other such excuses that speak more to the shortcomings of the marketers themselves than anything. Wise's case might be the oddest of all: he could appeal to a massive swath of people. That swath happens to be the very last group of people freeskiing wants to capture.
It is a style-over-substance issue, and its existence bothers Wise because he knows deep down it's an intractable issue. He prioritizes family and professional success, and those two things happen to run in direct conflict with the image the sport he loves wants to project. He saw it when he married Lexi before his 21st birthday. He saw it when Nayeli was born. He sees it today when the girls accompany him on the road.
"People look at us like we're crazy," Lexi said. "We get asked if we're Mormon a lot. So, yeah, it's a little bit difficult. Not a lot of people understand it. David's definitely been misunderstood the last couple years, just thinking he's too good for them or doesn't care about them or he's just self-conceited and wants to win."
"I'm really excited. I'm hoping winning the Olympics can open opportunities for him to show the world he's not like that," she continued. "He's not out here just for himself. He's not out here just to win. He's a spokesman. He wants to represent not only his country in the Olympics, but also his town, his family, his friends. He just wants to be a good representative of who he is as a person."
Were freeskiing more secure with itself – not just thinking that it must target tweens and teens but understanding that the ski community writ large can adopt the idea that going straight down a hill isn't the only way to go – and willing to embrace what Wise embodies, it could see that there is room for the Yater-Wallaces and the Wises.
This is not to suggest highlighting off-course Wise. He likes reading books. (Nerd alert!) He brings Lexi a rock from everywhere he travels to remind her he’s thinking of her. (Romance is lame!) He doesn’t talk much in action-sports patois. (Such a barney!) There is room to showcase David Wise – the guy who introduced the double-cork 1260, still the only one who can pull a double cork riding backward – if only those in charge of doing so open their minds. There is a place for someone to emphasize competitions – in that respect, Wise is very similar to Shaun White, who draws criticisms for doing the same – and not be looked at as a traitor to the heart of the sport.
[Photos: Olympic crashes and wipeouts]
"This is a tough community," Lexi said.
And she's right. They're greedy. They want their stars to fulfill an archetype that dovetails with their culture. They want loud. They want goofy. They want a little crazy. They want pretty much everything Wise isn't, and he's lucky he can ski so well, because it forces a modicum of respect from everyone, the triple threat included.
"Dave's kind of like the dad," Blunck said. "For him to go out and stomp these runs, it's awesome, because we're all part of Team USA, and we're all stoked as long as USA is winning."
USA did win Tuesday, its 11th medal of 20 from skiing and snowboarding. So many of the other gold medal winners fulfilled the action-sports stereotype. Sage Kotsenburg is a righteous dude. Jamie Anderson is a complete hippie. Kaitlyn Farrington sports a nose ring. Even slopestyle skier Joss Christensen, seemingly the least likely of the four to fit into the mold, found himself on a Corn Flakes box.
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For Wise, the fifth gold medalist on the mountain, his best chance at public embrace is playing up the idea that he's a great husband and a great dad and the sort of person all men should aspire to be. It would work, too, but then Wise would prefer, as usual, to focus on the sport instead of him.
"I just want more people to ski," he said.
It was so earnest, so honest, almost an incantation. Let me be the spokesman. (I can do it!) Allow me to sell the sport. (I'll represent it well!) Parlay this gold medal into something more for freeskiing. (It will work!)
The euphoria of gold allowed for great optimism. Because as much as anyone, David Wise knows his sport. He knows what it wants. And, shame though it may be, it isn't him.
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