KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — A decade of patience, perseverance and humility paid off for Alex Deibold here Tuesday with his bronze-medal performance in the crash-addled, rain-soaked Olympic snowboard cross.
Deibold endured a decade on U.S. Snowboarding's second-tier B Team, finding few podiums. Hand surgery blurred into shoulder surgery. He moved away from home to train. The valleys seemed to overshadow the peaks, especially when he was relegated to waxing snowboards for his teammates in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
"It was grueling work. But I'm grateful, it really gave me motivation over the last four years," said the Boulder resident, speaking to reporters after climbing his third contest podium in almost 40 starts since 2003. "I've had a lot of low points. To be standing here in front of you guys, standing on the podium today and wrap that flag around myself, all that sacrifice and hard work doesn't seem like a damn thing."
Through those lows, Deibold never lost his commitment to snowboarding, which he learned as a kid at the storied Stratton Mountain School in Vermont under the tutelage of U.S. Snowboarding's head coach Mike Jankowski. Surrounded — and often eclipsed — by naturally gifted athletes such as 20-year-old Trevor Jacob and snowboard cross pioneers like Seth Wescott and Nate Holland, Deibold knew he had to outwork them.
"I'm a jack-of-all-trades, master of none," the 27-year old said. "And I've never minded working hard. I learned it from my grandfather and from my parents. I enjoy the process."
It was in Russia last year where his career began to turn. Deibold took silver in the Olympic test event, his first World Cup podium. A year later, after patiently taking advantage of slight competitor errors on the same course — culminating with a dramatic heelside, inside turn to grab the third position in the final of four heated races — Deibold posted the performance of his career. The headlines spilled into the ether within seconds, "Wax tech wins bronze."
France's Pierre Vaultier won gold. Russian Nikolay Olyunin took silver.
Deibold was a vision of humility accepting his long-coming accolade, crediting the team's head wax technician he toiled alongside in Vancouver, as well as his teammates. He seemed genuinely touched by the congratulations from teammate Holland, a seven-time X Games gold medalist and contender for Olympic gold who, like medal-favorite Lindsey Jacobellis the day before, took a tumble while in the lead.
"He is and will be one of the greatest snowboard cross racers in history," Deibold said. "To have Nate tackle me at the bottom and hug me the way he did and support me, that was a great moment because he is such a fierce competitor that you don't always see that out of him."
When course designers first opened the Olympic cross course last week, it was Deibold who took the first run, followed by Holland. Deibold said that inaugural, guinea-pig run was scary. He also said: "It's rad."
Deibold has the stout Russian course dialed. On Tuesday, he showed he knew when to wait and when to attack. He rolled when others jumped and leapt when others kept their board on the slushy snow. In a race riddled with crashes, he stayed on his feet, navigating around wrecks. He finished third in all four of his races, moving with the same consistency that defined his Olympic-bound season.
While many bemoaned the soaked course, the blurred vision and the changing snow textures, Deibold welcomed the hardships.
"I've always excelled in adverse conditions. I put that stuff out of my mind," he said. "I've been snowboarding since I was little kid and back then it was as many runs as you could get in the freezing rain or the snow. You have to embrace what nature throws at you."
In a climactic semifinal he tangled in mid-air with teammate Jacob, the riders grappling as they soared in third and fourth place. They landed safely but on the final jump they both hit the snow, sliding across the finish line on their backs in a photo finish that required slow-motion replay to determine the outcome.
At that moment, the embracing families of Deibold and Jacob stared at the big screen, mouths agape. One of the riders was moving into the Olympic finals. The other was out.
"I'm still shaking," said his sister after Deibold moved into the final.
Doug Deibold, when asked about the length of his son's dedication toward Olympic glory, said: "Years and years and years and years and years. ... It started when he was 4."
Just then he caught a glimpse of his medal-draped son through a curtain of photographers, with Alex leaping to the sky with his thumb in the air.
Deibold's performance matches the story line of the Winter Games, where underdogs such as Sage Kotsenburg, Joss Christensen, Dara Howell and Kaitlyn Farrington emerged from the shadow of medal-contending superstars to climb podiums.
"In some respects, we have people who have been faster; of who you expected more from, but he's really put in the very most work and it's really cool to see it pay off," said U.S. Snowboarding's cross coach Peter Foley.
Deibold relished his status, moving in the shadows of stars and free of expectation.
"The underdog thing, it's been kind of nice not to have that spotlight and that pressure," Deibold said. "Hopefully I will have to learn how to deal with it at some point."
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, email@example.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins