White Salmon native Vic Wild will be at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games to defend his Gold medal in parallel giant slalom snowboard racing.
Wild, a double-Gold winner at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, will be unable to defend in the parallel slalom event. That’s because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) eliminated the event from the Olympics slate after adding it in 2014.
Nonetheless, the 31-year-old Russian citizen will be in PyeongChang, South Korea for the parallel giant slalom (PGS), which begins Thursday, Feb. 22, with qualifying runs for the Saturday, Feb. 24 Gold medal final.
Wild competed for Russia’s Winter Olympic Team after marrying a Russian citizen and becoming one himself in 2011. He went to Russia because he felt it was the only path forward to realizing his goal of competing in the Olympics, in a sport he had given his life over to for much of his youth and now young adulthood.
In other words, Wild wasn’t getting any younger.
It was not a difficult decision for Wild, who’d made the U.S. Team by age 20 but felt blocked by favoritism and a lack of support on the U.S. Snow-boarding Team that rewarded less-skilled but better-connected athletes. He said to hell with it and retired four years later.
But when Russian coaches offered him an opportunity to make a comeback in 2011, he decided he had nothing to lose by trying something different, something that worked for him, an approach that gave him more control over his snowboarding future, his Olympic destiny. For Wild, it represented a last chance to become the champion he knew he could be if given the opportunity.
“You only get one chance to live life. You can’t sit around and wait for it to come to you,” Wild said in a Feb. 5 telephone interview, while in Italy at his last training camp before the Olympics.
Since winning Gold in 2014, Wild has enjoyed moderate success on the FIS World Cup Tour. He finished No. 2 in PGS and No. 6 overall in 2014-15, and No. 8 overall in 2015-16. His ranks slipped to No. 12 overall in 2016-17 and this season he is No. 17 overall. He placed fourth in his first PGS of the season, but in his last three races, Wild has finished 19th, 21st, and 32nd.
Wild believes he can win Gold again in 2018, but he recognizes he is going to have to find that old 2014 form.
“When I left the U.S., I was on a mission to be the best I can ever be,” Wild said. “I knew what I was doing. This was my way: to be totally immersed. It’s probably not the smartest way, but it worked.”
In Sochi, Wild said, everything came together at the right time, in a way that was almost magical.
“If you go to the last Olympics, everything went my way. The [weather] conditions were good; we had wet snow, which I like; and we had good visibility. Those were factors I couldn’t control. I feel a lot of the stuff not in my control went my way.”
He added, “Those two days of racing were special. I want to recapture that magic and either win or not win. I’m comfortable with either result.”
As the world now knows, the IOC banned the Russian Olympic Team from the 2018 Winter Games “because of a doping scheme that corrupted several Olympics and many other major international events,” according to a Jan. 19 story in The New York Times. “But when the Games begin next month ... Russia’s representation could be as strong as ever.”
In the final issue, the IOC cleared 169 Russian athletes for participation in the PyeongChang games. In 2014, Russia named 232 athletes to its team.
Wild and his wife, Alena Zavarzina, both were cleared to compete, though they will be recognized during these Games as Olympic Athletes from Russia. The announcement lifted a cloud of suspicion that had hung over Wild and many other Russian athletes.
Wild said the last 18 months of life have been particularly difficult for him. Though he was never implicated in the Russian doping scandal, he heard the whispers of the accusers — in the media and on the professional racing circuit — who believed he had been taking steroids, who didn’t want to believe that he was capable of such an Olympic feat.
“I’ve been angry for 18 months,” Wild said. “My accusers have basically been saying that all I’d accomplished was about to fall down, that they were going to take me down.”
“I got an e-mail from a New York Times reporter that said I had doped at the Olympics. I lost it. It felt like a conspiracy theory like I was part of a doping scheme I didn’t know anything about. Then the story came out and there was nothing in it about me.”
Wild maintains that he has never doped, never cheated in his endeavor to become a champion of his sport. He assumes some of the Russian athletes charged with doping “were doing something wrong,” but he points out that many more weren’t, yet they, too, by association, have been tainted by the scandal.
“The only people you can blame [for the doping scandal] are the people above, who run the operations,” Wild said. “People need to get a grip on life. It’s just the Olympics; it’s not life and death.”
Wild imposed a media blackout after news of the doping scandal broke. He hasn’t been granting many interview requests. He did his last interview in December 2017 with a Russian news outlet.
He mistrusts the mainstream media because of he didn’t think they would believe his denials, that they had already made up their minds that his victories in Sochi were flukes and had to be dismissed and attributed to something nefarious.
“I knew with the big media I would never get a fair shot. I can say it a million times that I was clean then and I’m clean now, but people will believe what they want to believe,” Wild said. “It takes a lot of energy to defend yourself against something that isn’t true. After a while it becomes a negative energy, and you have to let it go, because it becomes a distraction from living your life the way you’re used to.”
Wild began his matriculation toward a snowboarder’s life at age 7. He became addicted to the speed rush he got from zipping lines down Mt. Hood’s slopes. Racing was his outlet because it satisfied his taste for competition, drove his love for the process of figuring out the fastest, cleanest lines to victory.
Wild trained hard and raced hard. Soon he was splitting time between White Salmon and Steamboat Springs, Colo., where he attended a premier snowboard academy. With every passing season, Wild moved up the junior ranks in U.S. Snowboarding. He made his U.S. national team debut at age 20.
He was enjoying a solid season in 2009 in the lead-up to the Vancouver Winter Games, but a broken foot derailed his bid for an Olympic Team berth. He got his career back on track the following season, but he became frustrated by the U.S. team’s lack of financial support for the alpine snowboarding program, which was being overtaken by sexier events like slopestyle, big air, and halfpipe. By age 24, Wild felt he was no longer part of the U.S. team’s future plans, so he left the sport.
Wild, however, missed what he calls “the process” of snowboarding. He said the sport has changed significantly since the 2014 Games. He said racing now is more about speed — going as fast as possible in the straightest possible line — than the edge-carving approach he used to great effect four years ago.
“The sport has opened up quite a lot. Gates are more spaced out and courses have been straightened out a lot to make them much faster,” he noted. “Racers are running longer boards to take advantage of the changes. It’s less about turning and skill on edge; there’s less across-hill racing.”
Wild, who has been training privately since quitting the Russian national team, said he has viewed every World Cup race he’s entered this year as a qualifying race, a learning experience.
“I’ve been using races as training experiences because you can learn so much more from racing than just training. I haven’t had the greatest season, so I’m making some big adjustments [before the Games].”
Wild will know a week from today whether the work he has put in was enough to get him on an Olympic podium for the third time. In any event, he is looking forward to his second Olympics and doesn’t plan to hold anything back on race day.
The main difference this time around, which could alter the dynamic of this snowboard competition, is that Olympic organizers have scheduled qualifying and final runs on separate days, with a day in between. As Wild likes to say, things will be the same for everybody, though others might be able to handle the mental aspect of the competition better than others.
“The Olympics are a lot of fun. It’ll be cool being there,” he said. “It’ll be a test for me. Who am I? Can I find that magic one more time? It’d be pretty cool if I won again. It could happen. When I get there, we’ll find out.”