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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The Volkswagen van pulled into a circle outside the halfpipe at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. Chaos descended toward it. A pack of young Russian men and women wielded pens and paper and desperation. In the middle of it was a giant ball of hair. Only those inside the nucleus of commotion could make out the face that belonged to the coif. It was Iouri Podladtchikov, the man who dethroned Shaun White, the Russian boy made good, and this was the first hour of the rest of his life.
The van door swung open. The ring of steel around Podladtchikov refused to budge. He seemed in no hurry to squeeze through. He signed autographs. One man thrust his prize into the air, yelped a few words in Russian, and punctuated it with a very clear and very American phrase: "Eff yeah!" When Podladtchikov's handlers finally dragged him into the van, he cracked his window and obliged more requests.
"Holy [expletive]," Podladtchikov said. "I never imagined this."
Sometimes Iouri Podladtchikov says things he does not really believe. Of course he imagined this. He imagined this for the last decade. He is 25 years old, rich, handsome, intelligent and nauseatingly talented. What he did on a snowboard here Tuesday night was the product of an imagination that dreams what the rest of us cannot. Three years ago, he wanted to impress a girl, so he tried a trick with a full 1440 degrees of rotation, an unfathomable two-flip, two-twist, body- and mind-bending feat of bombast and egotism. White was the best rider in the world, and he hadn't conceived of this. So who the hell was Iouri Podladtchikov?
He was, it turns out, the man who two years later perfected that trick and on Tuesday stuck it in the most important run of his life, right before White biffed his version of it. In a stadium chanting his name, in the country where he was born before ending up in Switzerland, in front of family crying tears of joy, Podladtchikov captured halfpipe gold. On this night, everything he imagined did come true, and the attention hounds constituted but a fraction of it.
Podladtchikov's pursuit of perfection begins and ends with the run he threw to win the Olympics: backside air into crippler, followed by a back double 12 and front double 10, cherry-on-topped with the YOLO Flip, the last of which is the magical trick — You Only Live Once, after all — that turned White's hopes for a third straight gold into pyrite. Podladtchikov hadn't tried it in nearly a month, and to attempt it in this miserable excuse for a halfpipe spoke to the sort of buoyancy with which he rode. Nothing — not the specter of White, not his own awful practice runs, and certainly not some slush on the flat bottom and kinks in the walls — could separate him from his version of the Sochi Games.
[Photos: The best of the men’s halfpipe final]
In these Olympics, he would win for his homeland even if he wasn't riding for it. A miserable experience in the 2006 Turin Games, during which Podladtchikov rode for Russia, soured him on returning to the team, even if his face could've provided a much-needed complement of good looks to Alex Ovechkin's tooth-missing smile on ubiquitous Olympic advertisements. Although Switzerland may claim the gold, in Podladtchikov's mind it is equally Russia's medal.
Not just because of the fans who feted him like a king, either. It's two other people. His father, Yuri, is a demanding, patriarchal sort, a doctor who teaches university-level geophysics and wonders why his son doesn't use his brain. His mother, Valentina, is a more nurturing sort, the one to whom Podladtchikov tells all his secrets, but even she has looked at snowboarding and scoffed, as if it were beneath her son. Though the Turin Games were a short drive from their home in Zurich, they didn't bother going.
So to see them celebrating Tuesday, not just celebrating but throwing Podladtchikov's agent, Circe Wallace, in the air again and again, lent insight into why these Olympics so mattered to Podladtchikov. His parents moved the family out of Moscow when he was 3, and though they never returned, the Russian customs and mores never abated. While Podladtchikov's heart is in Switzerland, his blood is Russian, and it gurgled with pride during the qualifying round.
On his first pass, Podladtchikov stumbled in the muck. He had one run left to salvage it. Land mines abounded. One bad edge. One awful patch in a pipe with too many to count. One lapse in concentration. His father reminded him of this, and instead of allowing it to haunt him, Podladtchikov channeled it into proper motivation.
[Throwback Photos: Olympians and their pets]
"Russia. You. Everything coming together," Podladtchikov remembered telling himself. "It's like all that pressure, and you're going to end up not even going to the semifinals? Screwing up right now?"
Podladtchikov found his footing, went safe, scored an 82 and sneaked through as the eighth of nine riders from his heat. He bested everyone in the semifinals, built on that for a strong first run in the finals, and coaxed life out of a crowd that liked White but wanted someone to love. At the top of the pipe, Podladtchikov said, he heard individual people yelling his name. Maybe this is one of those things he says that he doesn't really believe. Or perhaps he was so locked in, so attuned to the moment, that lone voices could pierce a consciousness intent on one thing.
"He always wanted that, always wanted to win the Olympics and beat Shaun White," teammate David Habluetzel said. "And now he did that."
Podladtchikov scored a 94.75 and outlasted strong runs from silver-medal winner Ayumu Hirano and bronze medalist Taku Hiraoka. White earned a generous fourth place and said he was going to take some time away from snowboarding to tour with his band.
As much as Podladtchikov has wanted to be like White — he envies his fame, his money and even his talent — motivation always separated the two. Podladtchikov desired snowboarding supremacy above all and never seemed to find it, because of either his own inconsistencies or White's prodigious talent. White gravitated toward building his own empire and relied on talent to keep carrying him, which it has for the most part.
After hitting the YOLO for the first time last year, Podladtchikov struggled to finish the final 180-degree twist. White, in the meantime, was learning a mirror version, and videos surfaced of him hitting it. Podladtchikov grew insecure. He wanted to own it again.
[Photos: Meet the medal winners from Team USA]
So he showed up in Sochi this week, rented out a house, and shared it with Wallace, her husband and her 1-year-old baby, Hemingway, with whom Podladtchikov played. He woke up in the morning, boiled eggs, cracked them, plopped out the yolks and pummeled a half-dozen or so. All of his complaints — especially pertinent was that he believed the architect of the mediocre pipe should be fired — were channeled into something more productive: thinking about Tuesday night, about his chance to win gold and throw one hell of a party.
Yes, that is a perk of a Iouri Podladtchikov victory. The man did party so hard once that he ended up paying for gas completely buck naked. When asked how Podladtchikov would celebrate, Habluetzel said: "Vodka, caviar and friends." And it sounded as though he was serious.
Once the hangover subsides and a gold medal hangs around his neck, Podladtchikov will start unpacking his new life. His celebrity in Switzerland will grow even larger — one TV station wanted to interrupt prime-time programming to put him on live — while his standing here as a Russian-blooded champion of the Sochi Games surely will mushroom. He'll have his fame, his money, all of the Shaun trappings without nearly the responsibilities. It's a good gig if you can get it.
More than that, he'll be able to look back at what he did and say there is virtue in his single-mindedness. It borders on obnoxious, which is a common thought about Podladtchikov, but its benefits give him the sort of edge necessary to take on Shaun White and a pipe of this quality and beat both.
"People who compete at the highest levels there is — they're very egoistic," he told Yahoo Sports in a mid-January conversation, "and if you're very good at something, you're not going to like what you do for a very long time because you're critical. And with that said, if you're really good at it and don't like your own stuff, you probably don't like anyone else's, either. You're looking to reach such an incredible, perfect level, everything else doesn't compare."
Nothing anymore compares to Tuesday, and to what he'll experience during the medal ceremony Wednesday when he bends over and receives gold from the Games that mean so much. Validation and triumph and proof, all of which were years in the making.
For now, though, he needed to go. The night beckoned. The windows and doors of the van all closed. The driver eased the gas. The fans held on. The cheers bellowed. And the vehicle pulled away into the night, ferrying an Olympic champion to the next hour of the rest of his life.
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