KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Alex Deibold has always been a grinder. Four years ago, he went to the Olympics as a technician — the man with a hand in waxing, scraping and, yes, grinding the snowboards into shape for America’s top riders.
He’s too busy for that sort of work now, and besides, his hands will be full.
When he heads back home, Deibold will carry the Olympic bronze medal he won Tuesday in snowboardcross — a sparkling reward for the behind-the-scenes grunt work he’s done all those years en route to the podium.
“It was grueling work but a situation I was grateful for,” said the 27-year-old from Manchester Center, Vt. “But it gave me motivation over the last four years. When I was standing on the podium, wrapping that flag around myself, all that sacrifice and work didn’t seem like a damn thing.”
Deibold’s third-place finish was the highlight for the U.S. team on a wacky, rain-soaked day on the snowboardcross course — one that began with veteran Nick Baumgartner and seven-time Winter X Games champion Nate Holland each being eliminated in their opening heats.
That left Deibold and 20-year-old Trevor Jacob as the only U.S. riders left in the field — the only two with any chance of prolonging the string of American dominance in the men’s side of this sport, where Seth Wescott had won the first two Olympic gold medals.
It came down to Deibold and Jacob, racing side-by-side in the first semifinal and vying for third place — the last spot in the medal race.
They leaped simultaneously over the second-to-last jump. Deibold was nudging Jacob with his leg, while Jacob was pushing Deibold down by his shoulder. They both stayed upright and even.
At the finish, they both slid for the finish line, the way a baserunner would go into second. Deibold’s board crossed a split second in front of Jacob’s. As they waited for the result of the photo finish to pop up on the board, the Americans shared a warm embrace.
“A little bit of a heated day, but you don’t hate the person,” said Jacob, who was relegated to the consolation race and finished ninth. “Rubbin’ is racin. And we were literally rubbin’ out there. He’s one of your best friends and you’re racing with him. It’s, ‘I don’t want to hurt you.’ But it’s a race.”
No hard feelings. And hard for anyone on the U.S. team to feel anything but great for Deibold, who has never quit his day job(s) — painting, construction, bike tech, you name it — as he’s tried to keep funds flowing for a career that hasn’t included any free passes.
“There’s definitely been times when I’ve doubted where I’m at, at the end of the season when you’re broke and trying to figure out how you’re going to pay rent,” he said. “But I’ve never done it for the money. I’ve always done it for the love.”
After his finish, he ran to the fence separating the athletes from the crowd, climbed on top, found his family in the stands and shouted, “I love you,” while beating his fist against his chest.
Moments later, Holland, Baumgartner and Jacob were interlocking their arms and lifting Deibold into a makeshift victory chariot.
“It’s cool because you have Seth Wescott, Nate and Nick and all these guys who are always kind of in front of him,” U.S. snowboardcross coach Peter Foley said. “But he’s always right there. He puts in as much or more work than anybody. And it’s cool to see it pay off. Magic.”
Deibold came into the Olympics still a member of America’s “B” team. Given the country’s depth in snowboarding, that certainly isn’t as bad as it sounds. Nevertheless, it often left him fending for himself in a number of areas — including tuning his board.
The Olympic bronze medal likely means his days on the JV are numbered.
“I’m a jack of all trades, master of none,” Deibold said. “I never minded working hard. I learned it from my grandfather and my parents. I enjoy the process, enjoy working hard. The sacrifices got me to where I’m sitting now.”