By Philip O’Connor
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) – Born in the USA but a gold medal winner for Russia, snowboarder Vic Wild made a switch that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. Without it, he may never have become an Olympic champion.
Minutes after his Russian wife Alena Zavarzina won bronze in the women’s snowboard event on Wednesday, Wild crossed the finish line first in the men’s parallel giant slalom to the roars of a jubilant Russian crowd.
A cut in funding for the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) slalom program led the 27-year-old to switch to Russia in 2011 after he married Zavarzina. But it has been by no means an easy ride to Olympic glory.
“I went the hard way,” Wild told a news conference. “Russia has lots of good riders. Russia has the opportunity for me to win races, not for me to go to the Olympics.
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“Russia is the country that has given me the opportunity to win the medal. If I was still riding for the USA I’d be back home, maybe with some mediocre job, doing something mediocre. That’s not who I wanted to be.”
While Zavarzina was delighted with her bronze medal, she was more eager to talk about her husband’s success.
“I’m very happy that Vic got gold,” she said, sitting beside him on the podium. “This is what he worked for. He’s so far from his hometown, he did an amazing job.
“He had to switch countries, switch nationality, accept something that some people would never accept.
“He has to deal with the Russian mentality, with stuff he’s not used to, working with people who don’t understand him most of the time.”
Wild told reporters his path was not for everyone. “It’s a serious thing to do. If someone’s going to switch their nation, they’d better be very sure of themselves,” he told reporters.
“All my friends, they understand,” he said of his former U.S. team mates. “They’ve seen me at my lows, they know that it was very important for me – my entire life – that I make this switch and that I give it one more shot.
“If I hadn’t done this, I think I’d always be wondering, ‘what if?’ You don’t want to live your life like that,” he said.
Wild and 24-year-old Zavarazina met in 2009 and were married in July 2011.
“It was the full-on Siberian wedding. We did it in Novosibirsk, it was crazy,” he said, admitting that he did not understand much of what was said during the ceremony.
“It was probably more stressful than today. It was the most stressful day of my life,” he said, smiling. “I was walking into one building, thinking to myself, ‘Dude, you are way too far from home to run!'”
Moving to Moscow has also been something of a culture shock for the young man from White Salmon, Washington, which has a population of just over 2,000.
“Moving to the big city was hard for me, for sure. The first couple of months I was quite depressed, but once I started learning how to enjoy Moscow, life’s actually been a lot better,” he said.
Wild indicated that some of his Russian team mates were not delighted by his arrival. “My team mates helped me so much,” he said wryly. “I don’t think many of them like me so much but I really appreciate it.”
Wild revealed that he plans to snowboard for another four years, and to learn his new language properly.
“I’m very focused on snowboard and training, and I haven’t put in the time I need to for really speaking. I can get around and do simple stuff, but I’m not a Russian speaker,” he said.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor, edited by Robert Woodward)