From Halfpipes to Family Life: In Conversation With Olympic Gold Medalist David Wise
David Wise won gold for the U.S. at the 2014 Winter Olympics and quickly became a household name. We caught up with him in Italy to discuss life on the slopes and appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
All photos by Morgan Harries
We've become accustomed to athletes attaining celebrity status. Every time you turn on the TV or open your laptop, you see someone who's made their name by kicking a ball or punching people in the face, whether they're selling you crisps, acting (terribly) in a film, or somewhat bizarrely hosting Homes Under The Hammer.
In some sports, becoming famous is even encouraged. Take boxing, where you get sucked into the pantomime build-up involving two big characters who make headlines on a daily basis. You don't get excited by boring people who keep to themselves and are friendly to each other – you get excited by a punch up at a press conference, or maybe just Nate Diaz lobbing plastic bottles at Conor McGregor.
This kind of fame is usually associated with mainstream sports, and it's seldom that an action sportsperson is put under the same spotlight. On the rare occasion that it does happen though – when an athlete goes from being an underground cult hero to a national star – it can be a wild, unexpected ride.
David Wise knows this all too well. At 23, the skier entered the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and won gold for Team USA in the men's halfpipe. He'd already won countless other competitions, including three X Games golds, but by winning at the Winter Olympics he became a household name across America, partly thanks to an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show where he was surprised by his wife and child. You can watch it below and seriously, if you don't go "awww" when his daughter rests her head on her dad's shoulder, you're made of stronger stuff than me.
David's latest stop off was in Italy where he competed in the Nine Royals freestyle ski and snowboard event. The competition is based around an elaborate set of jumps that resemble a snowy castle perched on the side of a beautiful mountain. Over the course of three days the world's best skiers and snowboarders compete in a surprisingly chilled out atmosphere. VICE Sports joined David on the balcony of a bar overlooking the slopes to talk gold medals, family and that Ellen appearance.
VICE Sports: What do you make of this year's course so far?
David: It's really fun. I've never come to Nine Royals and said the set up wasn't fun, but this is one of the most enjoyable ones for me. As always it has a lot of different lines for you to do – there's rail lines, transfer lines – but on top of that it's the best big air jump we've ever had. There's lots of airtime with a pretty mellow impact. Then there's the castle jump, which is a really lippy jump right over the middle. That's where I've been spending most of my time. So yeah, really fun, and it doesn't favour just one style of rider.
How did you originally get into skiing?
I'm a lifelong skier. I started when I was three, as I fortunately grew up in a family where that was what we did together. My older sister skied, and we started ski racing at a young age. But really I always just loved being off the ground. No matter if I was on skis, or on my feet or on a trampoline, I was always jumping off things.
So how did you go from racing to jumping?
When I was 11 or 12, my dad let me try the freestyle team out, and I started competing in moguls and aerials on the freestyle side, and that was just when the park skiing thing was starting to get big. Guys like Tanner Hall and Jon Olsson were out doing their thing. I saw that and knew it would fit me better; they went big and it looked really fun. So I started it, and competed in halfpipe, big air and slope for a long time, until I was around 17 or 18. Then when I tuned 19 I had a knee injury that I had to come back from, and when I was doing that I decided to either focus on one or the other to save my energy and keep my knee healthy, and I chose halfpipe.
What was it about the halfpipe that interested you?
Halfpipe is definitely more dangerous but it's a really dynamic spectator sport, it's fast, it's in your face, has five or six big hits in a row, and lasts 30 seconds start to finish. Whereas a slope-style run, as fun as they are, there's a lot of time in between each hit. Man, with halfpipe there's literally no time to even change edges, you just land and go into the next take off, and when you land a really good competition run, it's the most gratifying thing ever. So I decided to pursue halfpipe and had an amazing run where, from 2011 to 2014, I pretty much won everything I could have desired. Three X games in a row, and I capped it all off with an Olympic gold medal.
It was a few years ago now, but what was it like to win that gold in 2014?
Surreal, because I was so focused on not focusing on it that when it finally happened and the competition was over and I was on the podium, I had to spend months asking myself if it really happened, or if I was just dreaming. So yeah, it was really cool, and to now be able to represent the sport on a world stage and tell people why you should ski or just watch skiing, it's such a pleasure.
What was it like afterwards, suddenly going on the Ellen show and becoming a celebrity?
It was a very strange and fast transition. I think all of us pro skiers think we're pretty cool and famous already, because we've been to the X Games and experienced that, but there's a whole different level of fame that comes with that gold medal. So it was pretty surprising, because I wasn't thinking about what might happen. And I'm kind of an introvert, so all the extra attention to me was a little overwhelming. But I was just a celebrity for a quick minute, because people are pretty quick to forget. I didn't stay in the public eye, and I don't have paparazzi outside my house. Let me tell you, that's a real relief.
So you got to see what it was like, and get a taste for that lifestyle
Exactly! I got to see what it was like, and I was like: "You know, this is no more satisfying than anything else." And I think that's what I would say to people – don't really seek out fame, because it's not going to be what you expected it to be. It seems like it should be the best thing ever, but when it's actually here it's like: 'Okay, wow, everyone's watching my every move, but maybe I liked it more when I wasn't famous.'
Taking a step back, what's it like to now be friends and competing with the people you used to look up to when you were younger?
Yeah, I think that's a really good thing, and that's an experience that I wish everybody could have: to meet your heroes and get to know them. Because the reality is, no matter how famous they are, they're still a person. C.R. Johnson, who was one of my heroes, he was the first pro I ever met, and he was a super down-to-earth, very kind, and a super respectful and awesome dude. He never thought he was too good to hangout with me, and that was really important, to realise that he's a legend, but he doesn't treat me as if I'm not a legend – he treats me the same as he would anybody else. And that's the kind of approach I have with meeting every kid. Treat everybody the same, treat everyone with respect, and you're going to go far.
So what are some of the highlights aside your life in skiing?
Well I've got two kids. My second child, my little boy, was born after the Olympics, and what I've kind of realised the older I've got is that skiing isn't everything. There's so many more important things in life. I feel like I've been given a gift, in that I can go out and ski at the highest level. But at the end of the day, I'm going to worry about the other things that are more important – you know, taking care of my kids and being a good husband to my wife, and being respectful and kind to everything I meet. But yeah, I've had some amazing experiences, because of the Olympics and just because of life. I just feel so fortunate all the time.