Victor Wild: From Russia with love
When American-born snowboarder Victor Wild slices around the slalom gates at Sochi, leaning out and nearly touching the snow, he'll finally be within reach of an Olympic medal -- but only because he's racing for Russia.
This story of an American who became a Russian citizen to compete would have been impossible to imagine 25 years ago. It is a tale of romance with a Russian champion snowboard racer, a Siberian wedding permeated in vodka and a drive for excellence that smashes through national boundaries. It was made possible with the support of many people who have left the Cold War behind in the dustbin of history.
"I doubt this would have been possible 25 years ago," Wild says. At 27, he was a young child when the Soviet Union split into 15 countries in 1991. For his generation, Russia has never been an enemy.
For years, Wild finished just shy of the medals in World Cup series races in parallel slalom and parallel giant slalom. He knew he could do better -- but then two events conspired.
First, he met and gradually fell in love with the 2011 women's world champion snowboarder, Russian Alena Zavarzina (pronounced A-LEE-na Za-VAR-zee-na). She was warm and funny, with fluent English, an artist quick to sketch funny drawings of her friends.
And in 2011, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association slashed support for Alpine snowboard racing. USSA instead chose to fund more famous events, with popular flips and leaps, and with more athletes likely to medal.
Wild doesn't mention the USSA decision, but friends say his life became more difficult, as he tried to scrape up the tens of thousands of dollars needed for training and traveling to competitions around the world.
"In the U.S., I didn't have any money," Wild says simply. "There was no way to have the best equipment and the best training environment."
Wild saw a choice: Find a way to continue competing in world-class snowboarding, on the tour where Alena lived her life -- or go home, thousands of miles away from her.
"If she is in Russia and I'm in the U.S. and not snowboarding, it would be hard for us to have a relationship," he says.
He already had seen that the Russian national snowboarding team had all the training, logistical support and finances he needed to make the jump to medaling. So the decision to marry, apply for Russian citizenship and race for Russia instead was all knotted up with his love for Alena and his drive to excel, he says. Now, "we do everything together."
With the Cold War in the past, he's a man with two countries, and both Russian and American passports. No one has ever suggested he has to choose one nationality.
The USSA released him. His former coach Thedo Remmelink at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club says, "I'm actually very happy for him. I think everyone from our club hopes he does well."
Wild is happy to be competing in the Olympics for his adopted country.These people have given me a lot. They've given me a second chance in my sport. I want to return the favor.Victor Wild on hisfondness for Russia
"These people have given me a lot," he says. "They've given me a second chance in my sport. I want to return the favor."
It didn't take long to win the interest of Russian media, who could hardly resist the love story. Husband and wife have been interviewed on Red Square, mock boxing in fun, and training in their team shirts with "Russia" emblazoned in red. He is learning Russian but finds it slow going. Alena, 24, told Russian television that her husband's fierce focus has been transferred to her.
"To me, he brought a new attitude, I would say, because he's way more aggressive than I am," she said.
As for Wild's new teammates, "At first, everyone thought it wasn't fair that I get to be on the A team right away," he says. "But after our first race, I beat everyone by a lot. After that, they started to relax."
Svetlana Gladysheva, president of the Russian Alpine Ski and Snowboard Federation, has been on air saying Wild's addition to the team was very important.
"There's now real competition among the men," she said.
And Wild is thriving with all the Russian support. He has moved up in World Cup standings and won his first medals: bronze in the world championship PGS last year and gold last month in a World Cup race in parallel slalom, which has more turns. He's considered a contender for an Olympic medal.
Alena broke her arm in January but is a contender in the same events for women.
In sharp contrast, Wild's old friend and teammate Justin Reiter -- the only Alpine snowboarder to make the U.S. Olympic team -- spent last summer living out of his truck.
Reiter chose that cheap lifestyle so he could skip working 50 hours a week and concentrate on training. With a flannel sleeping bag spread on top of food storage and just inches of headroom in the hatch area he called his bedroom and lounge, Reiter gave up creature comforts to pursue the same dream.
"I do the best I can to market myself. I spend six to eight hours a day on the computer trying to find sponsors," Reiter says. He receives a stipend from USSA, because he won silver in the world championship slalom last year.
Reiter points out the differences: Wild, on the Russian team, has a coach, a doctor, a physiotherapist, a psychologist, an equipment tech, a masseuse, a salary and all expenses paid.
"You name it, they've got it," he says. "It's a full-scale national team. Which is why he left."
Reiter supports his friend's decision "150 percent."
Wild says his 40 to 50 days of training on snow each year in the U.S. has grown to more than 100 days a year on snow with the Russian team, mostly in Europe. Arranging travel -- let alone paying for it -- is no longer his concern.
"Now my logistical challenge is figuring out how to fit all our stuff into a tiny Russian apartment" -- just 33 square meters, or 355 square feet -- "and finding a parking space in downtown Moscow," he says. With 15 snowboards and bags of gear, "our apartment is kind of like a maze."
Wild started in his sport at age 7 when his snowboarding parents took him and his brother, Mike, from their small town of White Salmon, Wash., 40 minutes away to Mount Hood Meadows in Oregon. He immediately showed "a need for speed" and a preference for carving turns rather than jumping and tricks, his mother, Carol Wild-Delano, recalls. By seventh grade, his coach recommended he move to a racing program in Wenatchee, Wash. At 16, Victor packed up and moved to join the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club in Colorado just days after receiving his driver's license.
"I still remember him driving out of the driveway in his brand-new truck with all his gear," his mother remembers wistfully. But "Vic has always known what he was about," and he was focused on his sport.
When she met Alena in the summer of 2011, "I was impressed immediately. She's articulate, funny, wise, warm." And the mother knew immediately that Alena was the one by the look in her son's eyes.
She wishes he weren't living so far away but supports the decision to race for Russia.
"If it's better for him, as far as achieving his goals, it must be the right thing. And he's very happy," she says.
Although there might be some people "that don't know him and have a very narrow view of things," all his friends and family support his decision, she says.
Because Alpine snowboarding matches two racers at a time in heats, Reiter and Wild could end up racing each other in Sochi, says Remmelink, who continues to coach Reiter. The winner of the PGS will race 10 heats, all in one day, Tuesday. Then they'll go for it again three days later in the PS on Saturday.
In fact, Wild and Reiter raced head to head Feb. 1, in the last World Cup PGS race. Reiter won that matchup -- by just three-hundreds of a second.
"It ended up being a battle down to the last bit," Reiter says.
Reiter took bronze for the day, but Wild ended up higher for the year.
At Sochi, Reiter says, "It would be awesome to meet up with Vic in the round for gold and silver."