Sochi notebook: US-born snowboarder wins gold for Russia, with love

American friend and former teammate praises winner, says US ski team should invest more in the sport

Gold medalist Vic Wild, wrapped in the Russian flag with his wife, Alena Zavarzina, who won a bronze medal.
Lars Baron/Getty Images

SOCHI, Russia — Vic Wild had so many connections on Wednesday, it was hard to know who was happiest when he won Russia’s first snowboarding gold medal in parallel giant slalom.

Wild was born in Washington state and raced for the United States until 2011, so the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) was quasi-happy because he had once been one of its own.

Russian fans were certainly thrilled, even if he was imported.

Then there was Wild’s wife, Soviet-born Alena Zavarzina, who, moments earlier, claimed the bronze medal in the women’s parallel giant slalom.

“It’s the craziest day of my life,” she said.

Wild’s best friend, Justin Reiter, was also ecstatic.  

“He crushed it,” said Reiter, the lone American in Wednesday’s race. “He sacrificed everything. He gave up his country to pursue his dreams. He also had the weight of his country on him today. It was Michael Jordan–timed execution. Absolutely the epitome of the Olympic dream. True grit that you couldn’t script.”

The two had trained together for more than a decade until Wild moved to Russia.

“I was struggling and stressed that I wasn’t getting results,” said Wild, 27. “Then I thought, ‘How sweet would it be to ride for Russia?’ They have a good budget, a good team, and they needed a good male rider.” 

He married Zavarzina in 2011 and became a Russian citizen in 2012.

U.S. snowboarder Justin Reiter.
Harry How/Getty Images

Once Reiter was eliminated in Wednesday’s qualification round (placing 24th), he stayed at the bottom of the course to coach the expat through the final rounds.

And when Wild beat Switzerland’s Nevin Galmarini in the final, Reiter said he “couldn’t stop crying tears of joy.”

Subliminally, it also had to sting.

“The only difference between (us) is that he has a complete team of people supporting him,” Reiter said.  

Reiter, in contrast, is a one-man show who lives out of his truck in Utah because snowboarding’s Alpine disciplines aren’t fully funded by the U.S. ski team. Instead, he receives a stipend based on his results, and it’s up to him to figure out how much to spend on travel, wax, lodging and training during the year.

“Everyone’s talking about stray dogs in Sochi,” said Reiter, 33. “I feel like one of those stray dogs. I’m part of Team USA but I feel like I’m on my own.

“Had the USSA chosen to support a larger team, they’d have Vic’s gold and perhaps a different medal from me,” he said.

Eighteen days ago, Reiter placed third at a World Cup parallel giant slalom event in Germany (his best finish on the tour since 2008). He was also the silver medalist at the 2013 World Championships in parallel slalom, the discipline to be contested on Saturday when the two friends — the defector and the stray dog — will meet again.

Curling conundrum

Erika Brown of the U.S. curling team reacts during the team's loss to Canada.
Lars Baron/Getty Images

Sochi was a bust for USA curling. Not as bad as Vancouver, where its teams finished dead last. But close.

The U.S. men finished ninth out of 10 teams here, beating only Germany and Denmark. And an all-star U.S. women’s team made up of world medalists and Olympic veterans finished last again, with a 1–8 record.

Never had the U.S. won so few games in an Olympic tournament. And, in contrast to theories about the shocking dearth of U.S. speedskating medals, no one can fault billowing stretch suits for this one.

“I felt we did everything we could,” said four-time Olympian Debbie McCormick. “I felt we were focused, prepared and ready."

“The fact is that the rest of the world got significantly better while we’ve just improved,” said Rick Patzke, the chief operating officer of USA Curling, who has been with the organization since 1996. “Now we have to fine-tune and identify what else we can do.”

After Vancouver in 2010, Patzke said the program did “an extensive internal and external review,” and revamped its high-performance program.

This year, USA Curling also imported 100 sets of stones from Scotland (at $8,000 a pop that can be paid off in five years) to distribute to clubs. (Curlers need one set of stones per lane of ice. The Ice Cube venue in Sochi, for example, had four lanes.)

And even though membership has grown 52 percent since 2002, at the Olympics the U.S. must be ready to compete against professionals who curl full time.

“Funding will always be an issue,” Patzke said. “We don’t have enough dollars for travel and training, much less cost-of-living expenses.”

Nonetheless, “we never gave up,” said McCormick, a 39-year-old curling supplies distributor. “We always had the fire and desire to win. We fought hard. We really did the best we could. But seven countries are going home without a medal.”

Historically, the U.S. women have placed as high as fourth (at the 2002 Salt Lake City games) and the men captured a bronze medal at the 2006 Turin games when they defeated Britain, 8–6, in a game for third place that was briefly halted by a professional streaker wearing a rubber chicken.

“The teams here made tremendous sacrifices,” Patzke said. “They’re the best in the U.S. We need to help them be the best in the world. That’s the challenge for us and them.”

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