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Former US snowboarder wins another gold for Russia

Russia's Vic Wild, the gold medalist in the men's snowboard parallel slalom, gestures while standing on the podium as silver medalist Zan Kosir of Slovenia, left, and bronze medalist Benjamin Karl of Austria applaud during their medals ceremony at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The home fans showed up in droves for the final snowboarding event of the Sochi Games, and they were wild.

They waved flags and carried signs, painted their faces and covered their bodies in Team Russia or official Sochi gear in a rainbow spectrum of colors, as they watched American-born Russian citizen Vic Wild win his second gold medal in alpine snowboarding on Saturday.

Chants of "Rus-si-a" echoed louder than they have here at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park all Games as Wild rallied from seemingly insurmountable deficit in his second semifinal run, and the sold-out stadium erupted when he swept his two final races to win gold.

Wild's gold in parallel slalom on Saturday was Russia's 27th medal of these games, tying the home country with the United States for the overall lead in the medal count. That Wild's medal was gold put the Russians one-up on the U.S. for gold medals (10 to 9), and one behind Norway for the most first-place finishes.

Sure, the Russian hockey team failed to win a medal, but for the Russian Federation, but the home nation has to be thrilled with its medal haul, the most they've won in a winter games since winning 29 in Calgary in 1988, the final year competing as the USSR.

"I know that Russia, from what I had heard, we would be really, really stoked just to be in the top five," Wild said. "So for us to get in (first) place, I didn't know that, and that's really, really cool."

It wouldn't have happened without a pair of foreign-born stars.

Short-track speedskater Viktor Ahn, a native of South Korea who sought asylum, won four medals, including three golds, and was Russia's most decorated athlete in these games.

"I'm happy to have tied the record for medals in short track, and I'm even happier to have done it as a Russian," Ahn said. "This has been the best experience of my sporting career, and I will never forget Sochi."

Wild said he has never officially met Ahn, but he has him seen in training in Moscow, where they both now live. Ahn renounced his South Korean citizenship (Wild still holds his American passport) after a falling out with his old team, who did not have a spot for the four-time gold medalist (from the 2006 Torino Games) after he missed several years (including the 2010 Olympic cycle) because of a knee injury.

"I never got to see him skate until the other day, and that was impressive, and his story is really cool," Wild said. "I don't see how a country could let that happen, how they could treat him in such a way that – I don't know what happened so I shouldn't say too much, but from, what I understand, I just don't know how they could let him go."

Wild insists his immigration tale is different. He was done snowboarding with the United States team – and in fact, there currently is no United States alpine snowboarding program. His decision was not what country he should ride for, it was a decision between seeking Russian citizenship after marrying his Russian girlfriend, or heading to college to study architecture.

"I had an opportunity to continue snowboarding, so I chose to continue snowboarding because I thought I could do something special," Wild said. "I had never reached my potential, and I wanted to see how good I could get. And that's why I continued snowboarding, and that's why I'm Russian."

But Ahn and Wild have this in common: Their former countries struggled in their sports without them. South Korea did not win a short-track medal here, and the American alpine snowboarding team had only one competitor, Justin Reiter, who did not advance out of qualifying in either slalom events.

U.S. snowboarders won five medals (three gold and two bronze) in halfpipe, slopestyle and snowboard cross – the disciplines that are well funded by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

"Vic found a very unique opportunity with Russia in the lead up to Sochi and took advantage of it," said Luke Bodensteiner, the association's executive vice president. "Good for him and we respect his decision. Our organization continues to provide support to elite athletes across all sports and is proud that 17 different American skiers and snowboarders have medaled here. Our strategic focus on new events like halfpipe and slopestyle had clear athletic success for us in Sochi and are very relevant to what kids are doing at resorts around the world today."

Thedo Remmelink coached Wild at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, and he is here in Sochi as the U.S. team's alpine coach to support Reiter, whom he coaches in Colorado. After Wild won on Saturday, Remmelink came down from the top of the slalom course and sought out Wild's family, who had traveled here from Yakima, Wash.

Remmelink remembered Wild as a hot-headed young racer who grew frustrated by not being allowed to train with the now-defunct national team because he hadn't met the qualifying standards.

"That was really tough on him," Remmelink said. "According to the rules, he wasn't good enough. Well, he definitely proved it."

Wild didn't just win his gold medals here in Sochi, he charged to them. He was consistently the fastest racer through all of his heats of the parallel giant slalom on Wednesday, and he was the clear favorite through the early rounds of the parallel slalom on Saturday.

He looked unbeatable until nearly spinning out in the middle of his first semifinal run against Austria's Benjamin Karl. Heading into the second run, Wild trailed by 1.12 seconds, a deficit that should have been insurmountable.

Yet Wild caught up by the middle of the run, and edged Karl by .04 seconds to advance to the final. It was the run of a mature and confident rider – things Wild's friends and family said he lacked before marrying Alena Zavarzina in 2011.

"He's always been the same guy, his whole life he's always been awesome at whatever he does, but when he met her, he finally got that mental edge he had been seeking, and got that confidence," said Vic's brother, Mike Wild. "She just brought it out in him. He always had it, she just needed to bring it out."

The money the Russian Federation provided for his coaching and training, for his doctors and physical therapists and for his board technicians, were career-changing. But Zavarzina, Wild said, was life-changing.

Together, they are bringing his two golds and her bronze from the parallel giant slalom back to their small apartment in Moscow.

"I'm pretty content with my life. I've got a great wife to come home to, and that's something that most of the guys I compete with don't have. It's really important for them to have the results, but for me, I have a great wife to come home to either way, and my life is going to be great, with or without the medals, and that does help ease the mind and allows me at least to move and not be so tight," Wild said.

Wild said he hadn't yet heard from Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that call surely must be coming. He and Zavarzina both have a hard time envisioning now how their lives will change once they return to Moscow as Olympic stars. If nothing else, they hope their new-found fame will allow them to upgrade from their 350-square foot apartment.

"He feels really grateful, and he's happy about his contribution too, and that's the way it's supposed to be," Zavarzina said. "But he's not here only to win medals, he's just here for good racing, and that's what he's doing. He's delivering good racing, and raising up the level of snowboarding, and that's what we're all hoping for."
 

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