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

Vic Wild
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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 knew 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.”

Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville

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OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.

OLY-2012-SWIM

2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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Marie-Philip Poulin is first female hockey player to win Canada Athlete of the Year

Marie-Philip Poulin
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Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.

Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.

Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.

Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.

Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.

In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.

The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.

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