No medal, still an inspiration
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) – Pierre Vaultier stood atop the podium, feeling no pain from a knee held together by little more than a brace and cheek-biting grit.
Nikolay Olyunin, the 22-year-old underdog standing to his right, was quite content after giving the host country a good glimpse of his profession.
To their left, bronze medalist Alex Deibold was soaking up the attention of the U.S. team.
Behind them all, the favorites were washed away by bad luck, bad decisions – or both – on a course that deteriorated into a slushy, soggy snowball.
In other words, just another Tuesday in snowboardcross, the Olympic sport that sometimes is little more than a high-stakes lottery held at upward of 50 mph (80 kph) down the side of a mountain.
Iron River’s Nick Baumgartner was a non-factor in his heat thanks to a board that didn’t have enough juice. He finished fourth of sixth in his heat. Only the top three qualified for a quarterfinal.
According to USA?Today, Baumgartner started the race slow and was in last through the top half of the course. He made up ground in the middle section.
In a Facebook post following the event, Baumgartner thanked his supporters.
“Thank you so much for all the support you have all giving me,” he wrote. “I so badly wanted to do better today and make you all proud. I put so much work in and have so much passion for this sport and days like today can really test a competitor. I need to keep my head high and work even harder, I must learn from this and not let it hold me back no matter how tough it is. Thank you all so much once again, this journey has been a tough one sorry if I disappointed any of you.”
The jousting in front of Vaultier during the semifinals nearly cost him a shot at a medal. Apart from that, there was the relentless pursuit by Russia’s Olyunin, the man with the fastest board on a day when speed was in short supply. And the persistence of former wax technician Deibold, who buried four years of angst – and a teammate – on his way to salvaging a bit of American pride.
Vaultier stood above them all on a right knee with an ACL one wrong move away from a career-threatening implosion. Funny how the pain seemed to vanish the moment the 26-year-old crossed the finish line.
“I think I took off on the last jump and I did not land yet,” he said.
Happy landings were hard to come by in the rain at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. Instead of the bluebird conditions that can feature the sometimes breathtaking mix of speed and precision snowboardcross provides, the third contest in the sport’s brief Olympic history was a battle of attrition.
Gold-medal favorite Nate Holland of the U.S. didn’t make it out of the opening round of elimination after mistiming a jump.
Italy’s Omar Visintin loomed as a threat until colliding with Australia’s Jarryd Hughes in the semifinals, going head-first over a pair of step-down ramps and being taken off on a stretcher.
Taylor Jacob, the youngest and perhaps most naturally gifted rider on the U.S. team, saw his spot in the finals taken by Deibold, who edged Jacob aside at the finish after both spectacularly slid across the line on their backs.
The event was pushed back from Monday to Tuesday due to heavy fog. Conditions weren’t much better 24 hours later as the drizzle slowed the 750-meter track, making passing difficult and put the ability to get out of the gates quickly at a premium.
“We compete in an outdoor sport, this is not something that uncommon,” Deibold said. “It’s one of the situations we prep ourselves for.”
Nobody was better than Vaultier and Olyunin, who led nearly wire to wire in his three races before the finals. He wasn’t quite as sharp when the gate dropped in the medal round as Vaultier sprinted to the front then fended him off three times before pulling away over the last two jumps.
“He is the embodiment of snowboardcross,” Olyunin said of Vaultier. “He is created for this and he deserved the medal.”
So did Olyunin, who seemed overcome by the prospect of being only the second Russian to win a medal with a snowboard attached to the bottom of their boots.
Though he considers himself a bit of a “pioneer,” Olyunin is still in the early stages of his career. He began the day ranked 20th in the world and ended it as the face of his sport in his homeland.
“I really want to be alone, I’m so tired,” Olyunin said. “Those delays, they really tired me. Yesterday was really hard for me but I decided … to prove to Russia, that snowboarding does exist.”
Vaultier did his best to minimize the danger. While the early heats sometimes looked like a parade as riders simply tried to grab one of the top three spots to advance, things became more contentious as the field dwindled from 39 to 24 to 12 to six.
One quarterfinal race contained a three-rider pileup. The first semifinal included Deibold and Jacob racing side by side, with Deibold accidentally hitting Jacob in the groin as his teammate tried to steady himself as they soared over a jump.
There was no intent involved. There rarely is in a sport that relies heavily on trust to keep the chaos from getting out of hand.
Deibold edged Jacob then sprinted to bronze, the painful memories of when he served as a wax technician – grunt work really – for the Olympic team after failing to qualify evaporating in the process.
“I’m going to enjoy not waxing my snowboard for awhile,” he said with a laugh.
Holland, a seven-time X Games winner in this event, didn’t make it out of the first round. He and Jacobs were well in front during their heat when Holland inexplicably lost his momentum after clearing one of the bigger jumps halfway down. He couldn’t regain speed and ended up fourth.