KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The smell. Nobody who steps into a snowboard wax room forgets the smell. It can get acrid, nasty enough that some people who wax snowboards for a living throw on a respirator to protect their lungs. And yet they're back every day, inhaling it all the same, getting high on this sport they love.
Four years ago, Alex Deibold worked as a wax technician during the Vancouver Games. He was a world-class snowboardcross racer who happened to stumble through a bad season. He was offered a choice: watch the Winter Olympics at home or come along and partake of the most grueling job in snowboarding. The dusk-to-sunrise hours of wax techs didn't deter him. He was addicted.
Right or wrong, confident or self-satisfied, Deibold believed four years later, he would not be back in the wax room. He would be the caddy who won the Masters, the batboy who homered in the World Series, the man behind the man who became the man. Hour after hour, Deibold scraped and brushed, brushed and scraped, wanting only a chance.
He got it Tuesday. He blitzed through a mushy, treacherous snowboardcross course at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. He raced as snowboardcross racers must: With relative impunity, the sort that prompted him to inadvertently whack his own American teammate square in the nether regions mid-air. And now Alex Deibold, wax tech in 2010, is a bronze medalist in 2014.
His daring pass on the last turn of the course thrust him into third place, and the 27-year-old from Connecticut braved the massive final jump that one race earlier had sent him crashing through the finish line and onto the finals by about 6 inches ahead of Trevor Jacob, the one whom earlier in the race received the cup check from Deibold. Though he finished behind Pierre Vaultier (gold) and Nikolay Olyunin (silver), Deibold in one day validated the decade that drove him into sporting poverty, the years that he spent rehabilitating injuries, the weeks waxing in Vancouver and the days of nerves at the Sochi Games that worked in concert to get him atop a podium.
"There's definitely been times where 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," Deibold said. "But I've never done it for the money. I've always done it for the love. And to do something that I love every day is a really fortunate thing."
Among the four American racers who participated Tuesday, Deibold was the least likely to medal. Nate Holland is the dean of American racers, Nick Baumgartner typically among the top five in the world rankings and Jacob the multisport phenom who transitions from snowboardcross to BMX to dirtbike racing to surfing as easily as the rest of the world goes from texting to Flappy Bird to Fruit Ninja to Vine. Deibold is the solid-but-unspectacular sort who improved through time and will and effort.
"We have people that have been faster and that you expected more from," U.S. snowboardcross coach Peter Foley said. "But he's really maybe put in the very most work, and it's cool to see it pay off."
How it paid off wasn't just cool. It was one of the most spectacular things at these games, an action-packed bonanza swathed in persistent danger. The No. 1-ranked racer in the world, Italy's Omar Visintin, was stretchered off following a crash in the finals, though his wounds were more superficial than problematic: in addition to a bruised ego, he suffered a bruised rear end.
Jacob, on the other hand, raced almost the entire semifinal with what he called a broken ankle. (Specifically, Jacob believes he tore ligaments off the cuboid bone in his foot.) The finish, then, was all the more memorable: Jacob coming off the final jump as though shot out by a cannon, Deibold right there with him, both losing their footing about three-quarters of the way down the hill and sliding through the finish line side by side.
Slow-motion replays showed Deibold's board crossing the finish line about 6 inches ahead of Jacob's. Between that and the accidental shot earlier in the race – "Did he hit me in the nuts?" Jacob wondered – it added insult to injury for the 20-year-old Jacob, who next plans on joining Travis Pastrana's Nitro Circus for an Australian tour in May.
"When you're in the air, man, it's anything you can to survive," Baumgartner said. "You do whatever you can to survive. I don't think that was a bad thing at all."
Nope. It was racing, and racers' survival instincts run stronger than most. Deibold brought eight boards to the Sochi Games because nobody could predict the weather here. The first 10 days, temperatures neared 60 degrees. Then on Monday, the day of the race, huge plumes of fog forced its postponement. Come Tuesday, the course turned perilously wet, a consistent rain leaving Deibold a tough choice on which board to use.
"What do you think?" asked Andy Buckley.
"You tell me," Deibold said.
Buckley is the lead wax tech Deibold assisted in Vancouver. They spent hours together in that room, dropping the wax on the bottom of the boards, using hot irons to spread it, scraping off the excess, adding more, smoothing, scraping, again and again, three or more times for each of the six boards under Buckley's watch. It was mind-numbing work, especially for a perfectionist of Buckley's standards, especially when his friends and teammates were riding a race in which he believed he belonged.
"It was really hard to sit back and watch them enjoy something that I wanted so badly," Deibold said. "That moment – I used that as motivation over the last four years."
Those four years ended Tuesday with Deibold wrapped in an American flag. He wore it like Superman's cape, posing with it, showing it off, looking every bit the handsome golden boy from Colorado. He took a deep breath, sucked in the taste of cool mountain air, savored it. He was high on the sport he loves, and this time, it smelled perfect.
Click on the image below for more photos of the snowboard cross final: