American snowboarder Vic Wild says he’ll have two people to thank if he wins an Olympic gold medal this month: his Siberian wife and Vladimir Putin.
Wild, unable to afford to train at an elite level in the U.S., gained Russian citizenship in 2012 after moving to Moscow and marrying world champion snowboarder Alena Zavarzina. Now he’s sponsored by Putin’s government and competing for Russia, which will pay him as much as 300,000 euros ($410,000) if he adds to its medal count in Sochi.
“If I’d stayed in the U.S., I wouldn’t have this opportunity, and I wouldn’t be doing what I love,” Wild said by telephone from Salzburg in the Austrian Alps before flying to Sochi. “I’d be in college or leading some different life.”
For the 27-year-old Wild, who grew up near Mount Hood in White Salmon, Washington, the move is already paying off. He won his first World Cup parallel slalom race in 42 tries in Bad Gastein, Austria, on Jan. 12, making him one of the favorites to earn the gold in Sochi on Feb 17.
That victory wouldn’t have been possible, Wild said, without the support of Russia’s government, which is spending a record $44 billion to host its first Winter Olympics. That doesn’t include state and private outlays for individual sports or athletes, such as the biathlon team, which is funded by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and has traveled on private jets.
It costs “hundreds of thousands of dollars” a year for a professional snowboarder to train and live, according to Wild. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association wasn’t interested in funding alpine snowboarding, a niche that focuses on extreme speed rather than tricks or jumps, he said.
“They’re more interested in freestyle snowboarding rather than racing,” Wild said. “I couldn’t collect enough money, so the chances of me getting on the team were very limited.”
Wild and Zavarzina train mainly in the Alps, with extended sessions every year in the Ural Mountains and in Siberia. At one resort, in the oil province of Khanty-Mansiysk, a “ridiculous amount of money was spent to turn a small hill into a nice run with a couple hundred meters,” Wild said.
As for Sochi, the gold-medal hopeful said the area has been transformed into a world-class winter resort with the potential to lure thousands of Russian skiers away from Europe.
“It’s hard for me to say if the $50 billion has been well spent, but they’ve built it entirely from scratch and it’s in great shape,” Wild said.
Sports Minister Vitaliy Mutko thanked Putin at a meeting in October for approving the naturalization of “selected” foreign athletes to strengthen Russia’s Olympic team. Mutko mentioned four athletes by name, including Wild, the only one from outside the former Soviet Union.
“You granted citizenship only to those people who might strengthen some sport or who are in a type of sport where we had no tradition,” Mutko told Putin.
Wild said he was willing to surrender his U.S. passport if needed, though Russia never demanded it. Usually, it’s Russians who seek U.S. citizenship, rather than the other way around.
“Fortunately, it never came to that,” Wild said.
Wild’s not the first American to assume Russian citizenship in pursuit of Olympic glory. Becky Hammon, a U.S.-born basketball player, helped Russia win a bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics after failing to make the U.S. team. She also competed for Russia at the 2012 London Games.
Some Olympians, such as Italian alpine skier Peter Fill, who finished seventh in the downhill on Feb. 9, objected to the idea of competing for a foreign country.
“I think you need to race for your own nation, not for other nations,” Fill said at the Rosa Khutor ski venue.
Wild’s fellow American snowboarder, Faye Gulini, was more supportive of his decision. In the pursuit of Olympic gold, it shouldn’t matter where you were born or which country you compete for, Gulini, 21, said in an interview in the mountain cluster, where her event was held.
“I would go to the other side,” Gulini said. “If you’re a contender, if you are good enough to go to the Olympics and you can’t get that from where you’re at, I don’t see why not.”
Wild said he also has the full support of his parents, who’ll travel to Russia for the first time to see him compete.
“My folks and friends have been very supportive about me taking citizenship in Russia,” Wild said. “They thought it was a great opportunity and something that I had to try.”
Adjusting to life in Moscow, though, including learning the language, has been tough for an American from a town of about 2,000 people, Wild said.
“When I was in school, I didn’t learn anything about Russia,” Wild said. “My impression was that it was a cold place and that people are hard and drink a lot of alcohol. Now that I am living there, I know this is less true. People are pretty nice and have gone out of their way to help me.”
Having a wife more famous and wealthy than he is has also helped, Wild said, adding inspiration to their marriage.
Zavarzina, who won gold at the 2011 parallel giant slalom world championships, has sponsorship deals with OAO Megafon, Russia’s second-largest mobile operator, and Audi AG, the German carmaker.
“She got hooked up with Megafon and now Audi and I’ve got nothing so far,” Wild said.
The only downside to victory, Wild said, would be Russia’s national anthem, which he’d struggle to hum on the podium.
“They played the Russian song when I won the World Cup event and my wife asked me how I felt about it,” Wild said. “I told her, when I’m in the starting gate, all I’m thinking about is competing for myself. I want to win for Vic first and for Russia second.”