Vic Wild

From Russia With Love: Snowboarder Vic Wild leaves U.S. to compete as Russian

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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.

Switch countries.

“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.”

Here’s more on Wild from Russian media in an RT video report and a Russia Beyond The Headlines article.

U.S. curler gets epic Olympic sendoff from school kids

Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross beat top-ranked Brazilians for first time

Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross
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Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross beat Brazil’s best beach volleyball team for the first time and extended the longest winning streak of their partnership in winning the Moscow Grand Slam on Sunday.

“That just shows our growth,” Ross said. “We’re still on the up and up.”

Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion, and Ross, an Olympic silver medalist, beat Olympic qualifying top seed Larissa and Talita 22-20, 21-17 in the final for their third straight international title.

Walsh Jennings and Ross have now won 22 straight FIVB World Tour matches, the best run of their three-year parternship. Walsh Jennings last reached a streak this long from 2007 to 2010, when she won 78 straight international matches with Misty May-Treanor and Nicole Branagh, according to BVBInfo.com

The Americans had lost all three of their previous matches (one a one-set exhibition) versus Larissa and Talita:

Feb. 27, 2015 — 26-24 in Rio de Janeiro
Aug. 23, 2015 — 21-18, 21-16 in Long Beach, Calif.
March 20, 2016 — 22-20, 21-19 in Vitoria, Brazil

“You know what makes me happy? This is done. Now we’ve done it, we’ve beaten them and put it to rest,” Walsh Jennings said, according to USA Volleyball.

Larissa and Talita, seeking to become Brazil’s first Olympic women’s beach volleyball champions in 20 years, have won 12 of their 20 international tournaments since pairing in July 2014.

The FIVB World Tour continues in Hamburg, Germany, next week, the final event in Olympic qualifying. Walsh Jennings and Ross are expected to play there.

Walsh Jennings and Ross and Larissa and Talita are already qualified for the Rio Games.

MORE: Logan Tom continues volleyball career in Indonesia

Star goalie Ashleigh Johnson set to make U.S. Olympic water polo history

Ashleigh Johnson
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LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. (AP) — Donna Johnson just wanted her five children to be safe around the pool at her Miami home. That was it, really, the first step in Ashleigh Johnson‘s path from prodigy to USA water polo.

Swim lessons turned into meets when their instructor told Donna Johnson her children were so good she had nothing left to teach them. When Ashleigh and her siblings continued to show athletic potential as they got older, Donna Johnson, a single mother and nurse from Jamaica, delivered a simple message to them.

“For everything that they do, it’s not about pressure, it’s about maximizing your potential,” she said.

Now her oldest daughter is about to make history this summer. Ashleigh, a goaltender blessed with jaw-dropping athleticism, is a lock for Rio de Janeiro, putting her on track to become the first black woman to play water polo for the U.S. Olympic team.

While this is just the fifth Games for the women’s tournament, Johnson’s ascension to elite goaltender is a welcome development for a sport looking for more diversity and growth outside of water polo-crazy Southern California.

Each of Johnson’s teammates is from the Golden State, and the same three Pac-12 schools — UCLA, Southern California and Stanford — dominate the roster. Seventy-five percent of USA Water Polo’s roughly 42,000 members live in California.

After starring at Ransom Everglades High School in Florida, Johnson opted for Princeton instead of USC.

“I think Ashleigh Johnson’s the future of our sport in the U.S.,” USA Water Polo CEO Christopher Ramsey said. “She’s an out-of-California athlete who grew up in Florida. She went to Princeton, high academic achiever from a different background than a lot of traditional water polo families are from.”

Just a short while ago, Johnson, 21, wasn’t interested in that future, at least with the national team. The thought of moving away from her tight-knit family and joining a new team in California wasn’t appealing to her, but several conversations with coach Adam Krikorian helped change her mind.

“I didn’t really know that the Olympics was a possibility for me,” Johnson said. “I thought it was just like coming and training like I had been doing for years, but just living out here, and he made me realize that the Olympics was a great opportunity and a possibility for me.”

Krikorian first heard of Johnson about 10 years ago when he was the head coach at UCLA. Nicolle Payne, one of his assistants with the Bruins and a former national team goaltender, was working a camp in Miami when she sent an email to Krikorian about America’s next great goaltender.

“She said, ‘Adam, keep this name in your mind,’ and she told me her name — Ashleigh Johnson,” Krikorian said. “‘She is the most amazing goalie I have ever seen.”‘

It’s easy to see what got Payne’s attention.

The 6-foot-1 Johnson has long arms, perfect for firing outlet passes for U.S. counterattacks and guarding the top parts of the goal, and she cuts through the water with impressive ease. Sick of swimming in high school, she was offered an out by her mother and coach if she won the 50-meter freestyle at states as a sophomore. So she won and walked away.

She collected 54 saves while helping the United States qualify for the Olympics at a tournament in the Netherlands in March, including 10 stops in an 11-6 victory over Italy in the final, capping an 8-0 performance for the Americans. But that gifted sprinter is still inside her.

At a recent practice, assistant coach Chris Oeding gave the team a chance to cut short the swimming portion of training if the players could assemble a sub-1:40 200-yard freestyle relay team. Krikorian and assistant coach Dan Klatt offered a nodding Johnson as a candidate, but four different players were chosen.

They made the time, but Johnson stole the show by swimming the second leg alongside the relay, leaving Krikorian and Klatt shaking their heads as she churned through the pool like a motorboat.

“She’s a freak,” Princeton coach Luis Nicolao said. “She’s just athletic. I often joke she could probably start for our basketball team, track team, swim team, she just has that natural ability to succeed at anything she does.”

Johnson and her sister, Chelsea, play for Nicolao with the Tigers. They have two older brothers, Blake and William, and one younger brother, Julius.

Their parents got divorced when Ashleigh was little, and Donna Johnson raised the kids mostly on her own. It’s a challenging juggling act not lost on her children.

“I mean she’s such a hard-working, loving and determined woman,” Ashleigh said, “and she’s taught me that hard work ethic and just to try my best at everything and love what I do.”

Chelsea Johnson, who joked that she followed her sister to Princeton because she didn’t want to play against her, said she sees similarities between Ashleigh and their mother.

“I think the biggest thing from her, she and Ashleigh, is that she’s always smiling, no matter what,” she said. “Like her and Ashleigh, not matter what they’re doing, no matter how hard the thing is, they’re always smiling and trying to make everyone around them feel better about whatever’s happening.”

VIDEO: Ashleigh Johnson stands out on U.S. water polo team