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September 17, 2014

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Russia’s snowboard couple medals together in Sochi

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Andy Wong / AP

Russia’s Vic Wild celebrates, after winning the gold medal in the men’s snowboard parallel giant slalom final, with his wife and bronze medalist in the women’s snowboard parallel giant slalom final, Russia’s Alena Zavarzina, at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Vic loves Alena. Alena loves Vic.

Russia loves them both.

The edgy world of snowboarding took on a softer side Wednesday, weaving a Hollywood-ready story about love and marriage, gold and bronze, lifelong goals fulfilled amid just a touch of political intrigue.

Vic Wild, an American native who now competes for Russia, captured the Olympic gold medal in parallel giant slalom about 15 minutes after his wife, Russia's Alena Zavarzina, won the bronze.

"For both of us to have success on the same day, it's truly incredible," Wild said. "I don't know how this happened."

It started five years ago while they were traveling in the same pack on the World Cup snowboard racing circuit. Vic, born and raised in White Salmon, Wash., competed for the United States. Alena, a native of Novosibirsk, rode for Russia.

"When I first met her, I knew something was a little different, so I was very careful with how our relationship went," Wild said. "Very, very, very careful."

Love bloomed. Zavarzina, the 2011 world champion, doesn't enjoy sharing every little detail. "I'll tell them when I'm old, in my memoir," she said.

Meanwhile, parallel giant slalom — essentially Alpine racing on a snowboard — was going nowhere in America, even after its greatest moment in that country, the stirring bronze-medal victory of liver transplant survivor Chris Klug at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

Financial support dwindled. Wild saw where things were headed and dreamed about how great it would be to ride for Russia.

Neither Wild, 27, nor Zavarzina, 24, considered themselves the marrying types. But that was the quickest way for Wild to gain citizenship and a chance to compete for a country that puts more money than America into this more Europe-centric version of snowboarding.

So, they tied the knot in July 2011 in what Wild described as "a full-on Siberian wedding."

"It was crazy and probably more stressful than today," he said. "I was so scared. Walking into one building and thinking to myself, 'Dude, you're way too far away to run.' I had to walk through. Best decision I ever made."

The gold-medal payoff came on a sun-soaked afternoon on the mountain where hundreds of Russian fans chanted "Mo-Lo-Detz, Mo-Lo-Detz" — Russian for "Well Done" — every time Wild and Zavarzina came down the hill and won, which was a lot.

Parallel giant slalom starts with 16 riders bracketed based on qualifying times posted earlier in the day. From there, the head-to-head racing consists of two trips down the mountain, with the fastest rider over the two heats advancing to the next round.

The day could've ended with husband and wife both holding gold, but Zavarzina skidded out 12 gates from the bottom in the second heat of her semifinal against eventual gold medalst Patrizia Kummer of Switzerland.

A few minutes later, Wild won his semifinal race, meaning he was assured of either gold or silver.

Then, it was Zavarzina's turn again. She beat Austria's Ina Meschik in the third-place race to guarantee there would be an Olympic medal on both nightstands back at their 300-square-foot flat in Moscow.

Wild closed out the racing with a second-heat comeback in the final against Switzerland's Nevin Galmarini.

Then came the celebration. Husband and wife met for a long embrace at the bottom, followed by the requisite photo op — the two draping the Russian flag over their shoulders, flowers in one hand, snowboards in the other.

"This is what he worked for," Zavarzina said. "He's so far from his hometown. He did an amazing job. He had to switch countries, switch nationalities, accept some things some people would never accept."

Wild said the choice was easy: Russia wanted him. The United States did not.

"If I was still riding (for the United States), I'd be back home with some mediocre job doing something mediocre," he said. "That's not what I wanted to be. I wanted to be the best I could be. I'm so stoked to win for Russia."

He said he's not tying this victory to any message for the powers that run snowboarding in America. The U.S. has won a world-leading five snowboard medals at these Olympics, four of them in the halfpipe or slopestyle course and one in the more TV-friendly racing discipline of snowboardcross.

The country sent only one parallel giant slalom rider to the Olympics — Justin Reiter, a longtime friend of Wild who finished 24th.

"People in the U.S. don't understand it, and if they don't understand it, they don't connect with it," said Wild's mother, Carol Wild-DeLano. "So, then, it's less TV coverage. The funding gets reduced. It tunnels into the ground eventually."

Maybe in America. Certainly not in Russia.

The Russians have been looking for a foothold in the action-sports world for a while now but have had trouble finding it amid all the flips and spins. They found it Wednesday on the giant slalom course, and it was a perfect pick-me-up for a nation of sports fans reeling from the men's hockey team's loss in the quarterfinals a few hours later down in Sochi.

There could yet be more fun on the mountain for Russia.

In an effort to get more Europeans, and Russians, involved at the snowboard park, the International Olympic Committee added another version of this event — the shorter parallel slalom — to the program for this year.

The debut of that event is set for Saturday, and Zavarzina and Wild will be in those races, too.

"It's a beautiful sports story," said Svetlana Gladysheva, the former Alpine skier who is now the president of Russia's ski and snowboard federation.

Someday, maybe they'll call it "To Russia With Love."

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