John F. Russell: Alpine snowboarder’s stories make them worth cheering for
February 28, 2014
Steamboat Springs — I always rooted for the underdog.
I’ve seen it more than a dozen times, but I get sucked in by the movie “Rudy” every time it's on television. I still get emotional when I think about the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team, and my favorite baseball team of all time had Tatum O'Neal on the mound — the Bad News Bears, of course.
But one of my favorite stories, at least from the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, has to be "American" snowboarder Vic Wild who won two gold medals. Not for the good ol’ U.S.A., but for the Russian team. His victories were celebrated by the Russians, but that success must have left the United States Ski Team wondering how they let this guy from White Salmon, Wash., climb to the top of the podium wearing a baseball cap with Russia printed across it.
How Wild ended up on the Russian National team is a long story, which includes the American-born snowboarder spending several years in Steamboat Springs training with Thedo Remmelink at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. Like so many other athletes who come to town, Wild was hoping to jump from the Winter Sports Club to the ranks of the U.S. Ski Team. But a lack of support in the United States and his marriage to Russian snowboarder Alena Zavarzina led to a different path.
In a perfect world, Wild would have been back to Steamboat Springs this month to make appearances at local schools, take part in parades and celebrate Steamboat's long-running Olympic history.
But the world of Alpine snowboarding is a competitive one, and since it first was introduced in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, the U.S team's Alpine snowboarding teams have been lean. The U.S. team sent 21 athletes to Sochi last month, but Justin Reiter was the only one in Alpine snowboarding team. His teammates didn't even know he was on the team.
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It's too bad because Alpine snowboarders have the best stories, and their love of the sport is what the Olympic experience is all about.
The stories include Olympic medalist Chris Klug's intriguing story.
After having a liver transplant in 2000 to treat primary sclerosing cholangitis, he went on to compete in the 2002 Olympic Games where he earned the bronze medal in parallel giant slalom.
In the years leading up to the 2006 Winter Games in Italy, American Alpine snowboarder Tyler Jewell lived in a tent in order to save money for training and competitions. This time around, Reiter was the only American rider, but Wild made a pretty good case for why there should have been at least one more.
But finding support for Alpine snowboarding between Olympics is hard. And you have to wonder if Wild would have enjoyed the same level of success if he had stayed on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
In every case, these American athletes have been forced to find their own path to success. Jewell had to live in a tent, Klug started his own snowboarding team, Reiter lived in the back of his Toyota pickup and Wild left the country.
I would love to see these athletes get the support they deserve, but a small part of me thinks that these athletes’ struggles make them more interesting and more honest. They create great story lines, and nobody can ever question their love of the sport.
But then again, I've always liked the underdog.