Saturday, March 8, 2014
By Will Graves
The Associated Press
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Pierre Vaultier stood atop the podium, feeling no pain from a knee held together by little more than a brace and cheek-biting grit.
Gold medalist Pierre Vaultier of France, left, leads silver medalist Nikolai Olyunin of Russia, in the men’s snowboard cross final at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
The Associated Press
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.
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.
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