Jan 31, 2014, 11:19 AM EDT
Snowboarder Vic Wild was born and raised in White Salmon, Wash.
He will ride for Russia at the Sochi Olympics.
Wild, a medal threat in Alpine snowboarding, started dating a Russian snowboarder three years ago, moved to Moscow, married her and has represented Russia ever since.
The drastic change came at a career crossroads in 2011. Wild, then 24, had been competing since his mid-teens with zero top-five finishes in World Cup races.
Alpine is the only Olympic snowboarding discipline not in the Winter X Games, the sport’s annual showcase event. Sponsors are scant in the U.S. Money is meager.
Wild was prepared to quit, dissatisfied not only with his results but also support and funding from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association [USSA].
He said he lacked coaching, snowboard technicians and the kind of logistical aid to travel from competition to competition.
“People didn’t really want to help me there [in the U.S.],” Wild said in a phone interview. “The USA wasn’t into it, man.”
Wild was hardly the first non-elite Olympic sports athlete to deal with those hardships. He also held no ill-will towards the United States.
But as he contemplated his future, Wild began dating Russian Alpine snowboarder Alena Zavarzina, whom he had known since 2009 and had just won a World Championship in January 2011.
Wild spent extended time with Zavarzina in Moscow, and a Russian coach proposed a solution so he could keep riding.
“It was a little bit crazy, but I wasn’t that worried about it,” said Wild, whose given name, Victor Ivan, sounds Russian. “I knew it would give me an opportunity to stay with Alena, which she was really important to me at the time. And also it would give me a chance to reach my goals in snowboarding. I knew that if I gave up, stopped, then I would probably be bitter about it.
“But we hit some roadblocks.”
The Russia Ministry of Sport criteria required Wild to have won an Olympic or World Championships medal to gain citizenship. Wild had never competed in the Olympics, and his best World Championships finish was 10th.
There was one other option, officials said. Marriage.
Wild and Zavarzina discussed it thoroughly both in Russia and during a monthlong trip to Wild’s home in the Pacific Northwest.
“We decided, you know what, let’s go for it, let’s get married,” he said. “We decided it’s the only chance we’ve got. We both kind of new that it would work out.”
They wed in Zavarzina’s hometown of Novosibirsk in July 2011, one week after Wild met her father. Wild is not much of a drinker, but he took a customary vodka shot at the ceremony. And another shot. And another.
Both families approved of the marriage.
“I think [my parents] knew that I was having a hard time snowboarding [in the U.S.],” Wild said. “They were cool with whatever I did. If I wanted to stop snowboarding and go to school, they would have definitely supported that. They were really supportive of me not giving up.”
Wild had to sit out the 2011-12 season, but he came back and thrived under his new flag with increased financial support, better training competition and more officials aiding race registration and board maintenance. Russia was pouring money into many sports as an emphasis was put on boosting medal prospects at a home Olympics.
Wild took bronze at the 2013 World Championships and won his first World Cup event two weeks ago. The USSA is glad Wild is performing well and believes the switch has worked well for him.
Zavarzina hasn’t been as fortunate. She has not made a World Cup podium since her 2011 World Championship and broke an arm earlier this month, but Wild said she is ready to go for the Olympics.
They could compete on the same days in Sochi — Feb. 19 for parallel giant slalom and Feb. 22 for parallel slalom.
Wild will be the third American-born athlete to compete for Russia in an Olympics and the first to do so in a Winter Games, according to Olympic historians.
The others were basketball players J.R. Holden, a 1990s Bucknell point guard, and Becky Hammon, who both played at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They represented Russia after playing in professional leagues there.
Volleyball player Tatyana Sarycheva was born in New York and won gold for the Soviet Union in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics.
Hammon, a six-time WNBA All-Star and also a 2012 Olympian, received some criticism for her switch to Russia and joked that it was a “national fiasco.”
Many athletes who switch nations — it is becoming more common these days, especially foreign-born American athletes — are asked to defend themselves against traitor talk.
Wild and Hammon’s cases have similarities. They just want to compete. Hammon took up an offer from the Russian National Team after not receiving an invite to try out for the U.S.
“This is basketball,” Hammon said in 2008. “This is not World War III or anything.”
Wild, who is on Facebook and Instagram but not Twitter, expects some backlash.
“Everybody’s got something to say,” he said. “People will talk shit. Other than that, everybody who wants to really look at it will most likely understand this guy was going to quit and wasn’t getting what he wanted.
“It’s not only about snowboarding. It’s also about continuing my relationship with Alena. Had I stopped snowboarding [and stayed in the U.S.], good luck with a long-distance relationship with Alena. That stuff never works.”
In Sochi, Wild could make history beyond being the first American to compete for Russia in a Winter Games.
No Russian man has ever won an Olympic snowboarding medal, a stat Wild isn’t dwelling on.
“All I want to do is win a lot of World Cups,” he said. “I can’t focus too much on something that happens every four years.”
But he also feels the kind of pressure foreign to him as an American racer.
“Here, people want you to win, they expect you to win,” Wild said. “You get paid to do it. It’s not just for you anymore. It’s also for the people that are paying for you man. They put a lot on you.”
He would like to pay them back. He could start by becoming fluent in Russian.
“I don’t want to have to piece my sentences together,” he said. “It’s tough.”
Last spring, Wild enrolled in a Moscow language class with a half-dozen other students where only Russian was allowed to be spoken for three hours at a time.
He couldn’t stick with it, though, turning his focus back to snowboarding in the summer.
A goal after the Olympics is to pick it up again.
“I don’t even think about me being American anymore,” Wild said. “I’m Russian. I might not speak Russian fluently, and I might not totally understand the culture, but I live there. I’m not some American guy who lives in America and wants to snowboard for Russia because it’s easier. If anything, I went the hard way.”
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