France’s Pierre Vaultier yesterday won a thrilling final duel with Russian Nikolay Olyunin to clinch the men’s snowboard cross gold medal at the Sochi Olympics in Russia.
Racing through heavy rain and the fog that caused the event’s postponement on Monday, the Frenchman edged his Russian rival over the last two jumps to take the title.
“I took off on the last jump and I don’t think I’ve landed yet,” said Vaultier, who was racing with a brace on his right knee after damaging a cruciate ligament two months ago. “I saw Olyunin on TV and thought: ‘This is going to be difficult...’ I was not thinking about becoming Olympic champion, I just wanted to show my full potential.”
Olyunin won silver for the hosts and said he was proud to be a pioneer in Russian board cross racing.
“Vaultier is the embodiment of snowboard cross and deserved the gold medal,” he added.
Alex Deibolds— a wax technician for the US team in Vancouver four years ago — took a surprise bronze after edging teammate Trevor Jacob in a photo-finish in the semis.
After being lifted in the air by his better-known teammates at the finish, Deibold said the miserable weather might have contributed to his third-place finish.
“I’ve always excelled in adverse conditions, you just have to embrace what mother nature throws at you,” the 27-year-old said. “In US snowboard, we have an A and a B team, and today I’ve finally made it onto the A team, after 10 years.”
Stripped of the seeding heats after Monday’s postponement, the event maintained its reputation for unpredictability through four rounds of spills and thrills that saw the early departures of several favorites.
Australian world champion Alex “Chumpy” Pullin crashed out in the quarter-finals and was soon joined by Austrian former world champion Markus Schairer.
Vaultier knows all about the vicissitudes of his sport, having gone out in the quarters as the favorite in Vancouver four years ago and took no chances yesterday, winning all three races on his way to the final.
“Being first was the safe way today, but being in the fighting group, it was still possible to progress because there were a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Olyunin won his three races in even more impressive fashion by taking the lead on the early rollers and keeping well clear of the melees in the pack behind him.
Roared on by the locals who braved the weather, the 22-year-old again sprang out of the gate looking to dominate the final.
However, Vaultier stuck with him and the pair raced nip-and-tuck over rollers and jumps with first one, then the other, taking the inside track to force themselves ahead on the steeply banked corners.
The Frenchman got the tip of his board in front as the course widened heading into the final jump and, although it was called as a photo-finish, there was no doubt that the 26-year-old from the Hautes-Alpes crossed first.
There were plenty of falls over the four rounds of racing, but only Italian Omar Visintin required serious medical attention after crashing in the second semi-final.
He was taken off the course after clashing with Australian Cameron Bolton, who thought he had broken his wrist, but suffered only the indignity of badly bruised buttocks.