048: Alex Deibold: Overcoming Adversity, Before And After Becoming An Olympic Medalist
We’re a product of our own environment. Olympic skier and snowboarder, Alex Deibold, grew up in the Vermont. At age four, the slopes and the mountains became his playground. Eventually, he got recruited to go to a ski academy, and that started his journey for the Winter Olympics. Alex shares his experiences and his path to becoming an olympic medalist in 2014, and the lessons he’s learned along the way and why he’s paying it forward.
I’m back with another great pod and this guy is my first Olympian I’ve had. His name is Alex Deibold. Alex, in the Sochi 2014 Games, won the bronze medal in this crazy downhill-type snowboard race where there were six participants. They all go there. It’s like roller derby on ice and the first one to cross the line wins. He was involved in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and then won as a participant. In 2014, he won a bronze. In 2018, he did not make the South Korean Olympic venue with the American team, so what a disappointment. This guy is a total stud, great guy with a great attitude and he didn’t make it, but he still went over as an alternate. He can either choose to sulk on that or celebrate his teammates and help them. That’s the choice he made. He paid it forward, and so, tribute to him. I did not have any notes on this guy other than I knew he had won the bronze medal in 2014 and his ability to help me navigate through and being very responsive was much appreciated. Alex, I appreciate that.
If anybody wants to find out what’s going on with me, it’s MarkPattisonNFL.com, continue to make further inroads in where we’re trying to go as a brand and some of the things we’re trying to do in terms of reaching people. Always go in rate, review, go to iTunes, it does help. Sign up for my newsletter that comes out every Wednesday. It’s a lot of fun featuring other people. It’s not just about me.
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Alex Deibold: Overcoming Adversity, Before And After Becoming An Olympic Medalist
It is a big honor to have Alex Deibold on the podcast because number one, he is in another ski town, Salt Lake City, and number two, this guy is an Olympic stud. He’s had overcome a few things. I welcome the conversation and look forward. I’ve never interviewed an Olympic medalist. Alex, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me on, Mark. I appreciate it big time.
You’re in Salt Lake City and you’re married, but going all the way back, you grew up in Vermont, right?
Certainly, you’re a product of your environment. I grew up in Seattle, Washington and while it’s a mountainous community, my thing was playing football. Back in the day, there was a lot of Little League football, so I didn’t necessarily grow up in the slopes. I didn’t grow up in the surf. I had Laird Hamilton on the pod. A lot of times, you’re a product of your environment. Vermont, I’ve never been to the state but I know that there are a lot of skiers that come out of there and you’ve got to be a pretty good skier/snowboarder, which you are and good and nice, right?
Yeah. The whole joke growing up is if you can ski the East, you can ski anywhere in the world. I definitely felt lucky. I go skiing every weekend with my family, my parents, my cousins, aunts, and uncles. It was always a big family affair and it was all I knew. I started young. I started skiing at two, snowboarding at four, and I came into competition pretty organically at an event one weekend and I asked my mom like, “Can I do this?” She’s like, “I’ll sign the waiver. Go for it.” It was never something that I was pushed into. I caught the bug early. I was eight and then every year, I’d look forward to the event coming back. It progressed into one thing after the next and eventually, I got recruited to go to a ski academy. I went to Stratton Mountain School in Stratton, Vermont. I was pretty fortunate to be there with an elite class of snowboarders. When I qualified for the Sochi Games in 2014, my Stratton Mountain School had twelve alumni, so it’s a school with about 100 kids. We had twelve athletes qualify for the winter Olympics.
Is that something that they recruit from around the country or is that Vermont-based? It’s a ski school there, but are they pulling kids from Colorado and Utah and other places?
I was fortunate to be there with some guys. Louie Vito, he’s from Ohio. Danny Davis, he’s from Michigan. We certainly had talent come from all over. I graduated back in 2004 and it was an interesting time period because I was fortunate to catch it back when the East Coast still had the facilities to be able to rival some of the resorts out west. It was a boarding school. I graduated with a kid who was from California, so there’re people from all over, but I would say mainly it was a New England-based demographic.
Something that I grew up with was the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida. Back in my day, Agassi, Michael Chang, and Pete Sampras and all those guys were growing up in that academy. It sounds very similar where it’s an actual school, but at the same time, in this case, it was a tennis academy, so they’re 24/7 hitting balls.
It was a fully accredited high school. I was there year round, which was unique. There’s quite a few ski academies throughout Vermont, but Stratton Mountain School is one of a handful that’s fully accredited. September to November, it’d be normal school. You go in the morning. I played on the soccer team in the fall and the lacrosse team in the spring, but then about November 15th every year, our schedule would change and we would start school at noon so we could be on hill every day from 8:00 AM to about 11:00 AM, and then we go from school to 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM. It was awesome. I was super fortunate. My senior year of high school, I was competing professionally and I didn’t go to a single full five days of school in a row for the entire winter because I was traveling to one event or another and they work hard to accommodate your travel schedule and give you work on the road so that you can graduate. Some of my classmates ended up going to Ivy League schools and stuff like that. They certainly pride themselves on that and then we had a handful that were named in the national team.
I grew up as a skier. I probably started about the eighth grade and of all my athletic talents that I once had, everything has gone out the door except for my ability to snow ski. I’m living here now in Sun Valley, Idaho, a great mountain to ski on. I was in Whistler and I love skiing. I can still ski like I did a long time ago. My kids have tried to get me in and say, “Dad, let’s go and do a snowboard,” and I’m like, “No way man. This is what I know and I want to go.” How was that shift for you in terms of when you’re making that decision between becoming a snow skier or a snowboarder? What was that separation or maybe you’re better at one than the other?
Honestly, it was more of a product of my parent’s financial situation. I started snowboarding at age four. I was the first one in the family. There would be eight of us every weekend. This was 1989 or 1990. They didn’t make a lot of kids’ equipment, so it was hard for me to learn. Your hand-eye coordination and muscle development are not great at four years old but I caught the knack and my dad was like, “I can teach him.” My dad learned to snowboard because they couldn’t afford to put me in lessons every weekend. My dad started and then my cousin’s caught on. I did both. I skied and snowboarded until I was about twelve and I grew a lot as a kid. I was six feet tall at thirteen.
I was going through a lot of equipment and my parents couldn’t afford to buy me snowboard equipment and ski equipment as I was growing through all of it and I found snowboarding more fun and decided to stick with that. They never said like, “You have to choose one or the other,” but I had the wherewithal to be like, “I can’t get new ski boots and new snowboard boots every season and I’m having a lot more fun snowboarding.” I was going through a lot of growth at that time, so I stuck it out. I didn’t ski for twelve or fifteen years and then I picked it back up in my early twenties. Skiing is easier to learn, but harder to master. Snowboarding is much harder to learn. The learning curve is much steeper, but then once you get the basics down, you can accelerate your abilities.
They are different disciplines. I’m a rookie when it comes to all this stuff, but this was in Park City or this is back in Sun Valley. I saw these snowboarders and they were going off and doing all these aerial- like triple flip, turn around, land. In your sport, four or five different disciplines between a bunch of people racing down the mountain to a slalom to jumping. Give me the separation number one, and then number two, tell me what your discipline was.
There are four main disciplines. You’ve got a halfpipe, which gets its origins from skateboarding. You have slope style which is jumps that you’re talking about. You’ll have a run set up with a few rails and a handful of jumps or riders go off and do tricks that are judged at a competition level, then you have racing, which is a slalom and giant slalom, similar to alpine skiing where you have a rider go down through the course by himself or herself against the clock. I compete in Boardercross or Snowboard Cross, which gets its origins from BMX and Modo where you have six men or six women that run through an obstacle course at the same time together and you’ll have rollers and berms and jumps. You have gates you all have to navigate through at the same time. You have a start gate at the top. It opens up. You all go through and it’s in a bracket system. When we’re racing sixes, you’ll have 48 men and then every round, three are eliminated, so it goes 48, 24, 12, and then 6. Each round, top three advances onto the next, and then once you get to the big finals, six riders left, it’s the first one who cross the line that wins.
I’ve seen this and I know exactly what you’re talking about. Each one has his own little flair, but I love your style of snowboarding the best because it looks, at least for me, an absolute free fall, going down, and it seems like there’s some luck involved in that too.
All the time, luck is a huge aspect of Snowboard Cross. As a spectator you don’t need to know a lot. With halfpipe and slope style, riders are judged, and you may not understand why one run is better than another, but in Snowboard Cross, it’s easy to relate. You have six riders, it’s the first one to cross the line wins. The reason it’s relatable is anybody that’s gone skiing has raced their buddies down the hill. You get to the top, you’re going to race your buddies to the lodge, and the first one at the bottom wins, and that’s how it goes. With the obstacles, you have multiple lines that you can choose from and when you’re riding side by side, contact is inevitable.
Pushing and pulling isn’t allowed. You can get disqualified for that, but what we say is rubbing is racing and when you come into contact with other riders, people are inevitably going to crash. You could be out in the front or right upfront and somebody could hit your snowboard and you could go down and that’s the end of your day or you could be out the back because you made a mistake and a bunch of riders crash up front and you managed to sneak through. We call it getting gifted. It’s very rare that the fastest rider of the day wins. There’s always a bit of chance and luck involved.
I’m not a snowboarder and, as an Olympic dedicated watcher of all these different sports, it looks to me like the roller derby on ice. Going down and then stuff happens left and right. You’re a good size, you’re 6’2”, 190 to 195 pounds, which is about what I played at, decent size, so you’re going down. Did that help you or hinder you? It couldn’t have hindered you that much because you won a bronze medal but does that help in that sport? How does that work?
It’s certainly a mechanical advantage. I started off in freestyle, so when I was a young kid, I started out in slope style. When I went to Stratton Mountain School, I started to focus on halfpipe and halfpipe was always what I wanted to compete in, but when I went to the ski academy, my coaches said, “You have to do every single discipline because we want you to be a well-rounded athlete. You don’t necessarily have to compete in every discipline, but you have to train and you have to understand the basics of how to raise giant slalom and how to raise Boardercross and you have to do slopestyle.”
I did all of the disciplines and I found through results that I happen to be pretty good at Boardercross. Being a big guy like I am is a detractor in halfpipe and slopestyle. A lot of those guys tend to be between 5’8” and 5’10” because you’re spinning and flipping and so you have to be able to get your body around. In Boardercross, it’s a gravity-based sport, and so my size, specifically my weight, was a big advantage. I have long legs, I have a big range of motion, so that’s certainly a help competing in Snowboard Cross.
[Tweet “It’s very rare that the fastest rider of the day wins. There’s always a bit of chance and luck involved.”]
This is from my viewpoint. It may not be from yours necessarily but the guy that made snowboarding in general that take that lead was Shaun White. The guy is amazing. I literally can’t tell the difference between his back and forth and flip around in the air and land back down and he gets the gold. What’s the difference between that guy and another guy versus what you’re doing? It’s so much more abstract. Somebody is going to win, somebody is going to lose. There’re no judges.
If you refer back to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics, Shaun won his third gold medal. Shaun and I are the same age. We’re both 31. We grew up competing together. He reached a bit higher of notoriety than I did, but anytime you tell anyone you are a snowboarder, they ask if you know Shaun White. He certainly put it in mainstream media and stuff like that. Growing up, Shaun Palmer was one of the big guys I looked up to. He was named Time Magazine’s Athlete of the Millennium in 2000, and he raced Snowboard Cross, which I did, and he was the bad boy of snowboarding. He always had mohawks, tattoos, and partied, but he used to dominate our sport. He won the X Games in snowboarding, skiing, and snowmobiling. They did a winter mountain bike thing for Shaun back in the late 1990s. Shaun Palmer, we call him the Godfather of Snowboard Cross. I’m fortunate to call him my friend.
It’s fortunate to pave the way. I had a number of my NFL buddies, these guys are probably too old, but when I first got in with the Raiders, I was sitting and playing with Ray Guy, Jim Plunkett, Marcus Allen, and Cliff Branch. All these guys that had been in a Super Bowl a whole decade before and I was a little kid and there I was sitting with them. It’s amazing once your worlds collide together that there’s not that much difference between you and what they are. Most of those guys are pretty good dudes or women.
It has been an interesting journey for sure because when I was a kid, I looked up to Palmer and a lot of athletes. I look up to athletes across a ton of different disciplines, whether they are football players, golfers, or tennis players. I was fortunate to have a little bit of success. More than anything, my Olympic medal gave me a platform to stand on, but what you realize when you get to know these people is we’re all humans. Whether you’re LeBron James playing for a ring in the NBA Finals or you’re a young kid playing hoops in Detroit, you’re all out there, you all share a passion for a sport or the outdoors or whatever it is and it’d be good for people to try and remember that sometimes when you go to meet your heroes or you get a chance.
Even nowadays, I still find myself embarrassed to introduce myself to some people, but I try and treat them like normal people and it’s always interesting seeing it come around. When you’re going from watching on the sidelines to being in the huddle, for me, it was the same thing, watching Palmer on TV at the X Games to standing in the start gate next to him. All of a sudden it’s a cool experience. It’s a cool evolution, but it’s an important learning lesson.
Let’s jump into your Olympic aspirations and some of the things that you’ve accomplished. You’re back in Vermont, you’re at Stratton, and it’s decision time for you to either go onto college or for you to go on this pro circuit. You ended up going down that path. Tell me the path. As I was researching you, you were in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, you attended. Let’s talk about how that process works and how it goes.
I feel super fortunate. I look back at my career and I had to have a lot of things go my way and a lot of them were luck and capitalizing on opportunities that were put in front of me.
I graduated from high school in 2004 and I was accepted to the University of Vermont. Two weeks later, I received a letter in the mail telling me that I had been named to the US Snowboard Team, US National Team, and I was fortunate to have parents that supported me in whatever decision I made. I decided to defer my enrollment in college and try racing Boardercross at the highest level and see where it took me. As a young kid, I was eighteen, I was learning the ropes. 2006 was the first time that Snowboard Cross was in the Olympics and I was nineteen. I didn’t think I had a chance to go. I tried to qualify, but I was a long way off. Over the course of the next four years, I got a chance to compete at a world-class level at the World Cup and the X Games and World Championships.
When you go to the World Cup and these X Games here and there, who’s funding that?
At that point in my career, I was funding all of it. I was on the development team, the B team of the US National Team, and so I got a stipend every year, which was only a few thousand dollars to put towards my travel expenses, my hotel accommodations, and my equipment. I didn’t have a lot of results so it was hard to find sponsors, so I worked. I worked every summer, all summer, up until pretty recently, honestly. I started to have a little bit of success on the international circuit. In 2010 I was like, “I’m going to make a run for this,” and I came up short. They only take four men or four women for each discipline, whether it’s Snowboard Cross, halfpipe, or slopestyle, and I was sixth going into Vancouver, but my coach gave me an opportunity to go to Vancouver and be a wax technician. It’s a person that takes care of your teammates’ equipment.
We have to make our snowboards as fast as possible, so I worked with our team technician in a support role to help him prep all my teammates’ equipment in Vancouver. It was an important opportunity for me. I didn’t know this at the time, but I got a chance to see behind the Olympic curtain, see what the Olympics was all about without the pressure of having to compete. It was hard getting to watch my friends and teammates compete in this lifelong dream that I had had, and it lit a fire under my ass. Over the course of the next four years, I remembered what that experience was like and I trained harder and I dedicated myself. In 2014, I was the first athlete to meet Olympic criteria and qualify for the Sochi team.
What does that mean you meet Olympic criteria?
It’s a complicated process, but the US Snowboard Team can bring four athletes per gender per discipline to the Olympics. You have to go through a pretty arduous qualifying process in the lead up to the games. You can’t show up out of nowhere and pretend like you’re going to win event and go on to the Olympics, which protects people from saying, “I’ve got family from Mexico, so I’m going to go compete under the Mexican flag.” You still have to go through this process where you have multiple top twelve results in the World Cup in the year prior, you have to have a certain number of points which you score at every race, but then within the US delegation are coaches and a committee that lay out a criterion. For Snowboard Cross, it’s your single best result in a qualifying window. Typically, they try and have five races in that qualifying window.
To meet official criteria, you have to finish in the top three, you have to land on the podium. That’s not top three amongst Americans. That’s top three in the world, so you’re competing against all the other nations at every World Cup you go to and you need to land on the podium. The US has a deep talent field. In 2010, we had five guys meet Olympic criteria but only four got to go. What the coaches do is after you meet criteria, they take your best result and if it’s a tie, they look to your second best result that breaks the tie. If that’s tied again, they go to your points, which are an accumulation over the last year, so there’s a pretty in-depth process that is set up, but essentially, to qualify for the Olympics, you have to stand on a podium at a World Cup event.
You must have done that, right?
I did that, fortunately, in my second World Cup podium in 2013 in Lake Louise, Canada. That punched my ticket to the Olympics.
What was that feeling like at the time of winning the Willy Wonka golden ticket versus being in Sochi and going through that process?
The qualifying process is the hardest part. It is so stressful. Every nation riders have their Olympic spots on the line. I have twelve teammates that are trying to vie for four spots and any one of those twelve guys could medal at the Olympics. The US has a deep talent pool. This was in December and we still had two other races before the games in January, so it was a huge sigh of relief. I could go into those last two races and race with nothing to lose, but at the same time, I knew that I had to keep performing and make sure that my other results are up to par because there was plenty of opportunities for my teammates to get a first and a second and bump me out. I remember I got that podium, I went home for Christmas, and it was a good celebration with my family. They started looking into flights and planning and it was a special result for sure, but qualifying for the games is definitely the hardest part.
Let’s talk about Sochi. A couple years ago, I flew to Russia to climb Europe’s highest mountain, which is called Mount Elbrus. It was this whole series of planes, trains, and automobiles to get down to this small village, which is the base of where this thing was going to launch down in the Caucasus Mountains, and it was this crazy infrastructure. I’ve never been to Sochi, but I knew that we weren’t that far from that region, right?
The resort that we competed on was called the Rosa Khutor and those are also part of the Caucasus Mountains.
What was that like when you flew in there? I know that they built up the infrastructure and it seemed like it was a pretty sweet spot.
It’s an interesting mix of stories that you hear a lot of people ask me about Sochi and they’re like, “Was it as bad as everyone said it was?” because the media is always looking for something. They’re always looking for these stories and the whole story in the run-up to Sochi was A. That the venues weren’t going to be ready and B. That they weren’t going have any snow, but you’ve been in the Caucasus Mountains, they’re big and it snows a lot there. They certainly scrambled to build everything. Everything was ready on time. As an athlete, we were so well taken care of. From an infrastructure standpoint, everything in Sochi was brand new.
They literally built that city up around the Olympics, especially at least up in the mountains where we were. All the chair lifts were brand new. All the hotels were new. It was a pretty dialed set up for us. It’s a tiny little airport and you land and Sochi is right on the Black Sea. There’re palm trees down in the city. You drive for an hour and a half up into the mountains, climbing up the whole way, but the coastal village where the hockey was and figure skating and that stuff, there are palm trees next to the Olympics rings, which was a trippy experience.
A little bit like LA, where you’re at the beach and in an hour and a half or two hours later, you can be at Big Bear. Not like Mammoth and some of these other ones, but it’s the same type of concept. After I got out of NFL, I was invited to participate on the Olympic team for the team handball, and so they were trying to recruit more guys. This is when the Olympics were going to be held in Atlanta and I talked to a number of different guys who had been on the Olympic team and had gone to the Pan Am Games and other things. They were like, “Mark, it’s a long way to go. You got four years of your life.”
The real question is what happens after that because gymnastics or slalom, downhill skiing or some of the events that you do, those guys when they win gold, they can finance your cash in, and with team handball, it’s not much. At the end of the day, I ended up not participating and going with regret. Growing up, I always wanted to be part of that opening ceremony where you walk out and waving the flag and everybody’s wearing the same team uniform, so I didn’t get to experience it. What was that like to pop out? You were in Russia, which is against the Americans, and here you are representing your country?
The opening ceremonies is one of the coolest experiences of the Olympics. Everyone always asks you what your favorite moment was and I was fortunate in Sochi to bring home a medal, so I’m a little biased on that one, but opening ceremonies is such an amazing experience. You’ve worked for this moment for your entire life, you’re surrounded by your teammates, you’re all dressed in these uniforms, you’re walking behind the flag. It is such an emotional experience and there’s so much pride. I can’t put it into words. I smile thinking about walking out of the tunnel out onto the stadium. We don’t participate in front of huge crowds that often. We’re lucky if we have anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 spectators and when we walk out into a stadium full of 60,000 or 70,000 people and everyone’s cheering or chanting USA. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do that every week. It’s got to be a rush for you.
It is a rush, but I can also tell you that little thing called experience kicks in and when you get so focused and zeroed in on what you have to do, literally I could hear in my mind a pin drop. I played in the craziest stadiums. The loudest stadiums, Rose Bowl many times, and it’s literally the field, everything slows down into slow motion and that’s when you can be most effective. It’s those kids that go out there and get affected by the crowd and they lose concentration and then they don’t perform the way that they can perform.
A good difference is that opening ceremonies for us is that it’s a ceremony. We’re going out. It’s not like we’re walking onto the field to play. When I went on to compete a few days later, I got in the start gate and it was the same thing. People are like, “What was the pressure like?” My experience in 2010, I looked back on that and it’s just another snowboard race. It doesn’t matter if it’s a local race or a World Cup or the Olympics, you’re snowboarding. If you want to win, you have to snowboard well, and so you block out. I was able to block out all that other stuff and I can totally relate to that, everything’s slowing down, your focus is narrow, I didn’t let the cameras or the crowds or anything like that distract me. That’s good perspective coming from you because I’m always thinking back to opening ceremonies. It’s such a highlight and I got to drop the puck for the Bruins and throw out a pitch for the Red Sox. I walked into these stadiums and I’m like, “How do these people do this?” but it’s what you’re used to. It’s just a matter of perspective.
[Tweet “You don’t claim it unless you win.”]
A lot of hours put into it to get to that point. You go to Sochi and you win a bronze medal. That must have been the most incredible feeling. I saw a video or something where there is some mention of typically in your sport, if somebody wins it, they’re all fired up and getting the crowd going and showing that excitement and everybody else’s takes a second seat behind that guy that won it, and you take bronze and you let loose.
When you cross the finish line in Snowboard Cross, you know the results almost immediately. It’s not a judged event where you land, you run and you hope it sticks up. There’re five other guys to go or you’re the last rider, and so as soon as I crossed the finish line, I knew I was on the podium. We have this saying in Snowboard Cross, “You don’t claim it unless you win.” You come across the finish line in second or third at a World Cup, you can do maybe a little fist bump or something, but you don’t claim it. You don’t throw your arms up in the air. It’s more of an unspoken rule, but at the Olympics, all bets are off.
I came over the finish line jump, I had to ride it out, all I could think of was like, “Don’t fall.” I crossed the finish line and there’s this window of time for about two or three seconds where I blacked out. I don’t remember slowing down. I don’t remember what was happening. It was this pure elation and joy. One of the coolest experiences of my life was the fact that my teammates jumped over the fence and ran through security and tackled me in the finish line. There’re only three people that go home happy. You think it’s only the gold medalist, but they had all gone through an incredibly hard day where they didn’t meet their goals. They came out and celebrated with me and that was meaningful. It meant a lot to me. I couldn’t be prouder. I won an Olympic medal and it was the greatest moment of my life.
I’ve had a number of those moments where it’s the last second catch against some team and you win and everybody mobs you and everything. What you’re talking about is authentic emotion. You didn’t have a plan. This is four years of pent-up drive tacked on by another four years when you were the wax technician. You put in all your life to get to that moment and now you’re the guy on the podium. What countries won the gold and silver?
Pierre Vaultier from France won the gold medal. He defended that and won again in Korea. Nikolay Olyunin, a Russian, won the silver medal, and I was third. Fourth place was a Frenchman, fifth place was a Norwegian, sixth place was an Italian. Two guys, France and Russia, were in front of me.
You mentioned those other guys and that’s great, but it doesn’t matter. Only three guys are walking home with the medal.
Looking back at the season in Korea in 2018, my teammates finished fourth in both men and women’s Snowboard Cross, and fourth place at the Olympics is nothing to shake a stick out. At the end of the day, it’s 4th or 40th. Nobody cares who finishes outside of the top three and it’s unfortunate, but at the same time, it’s a reality.
The name of this podcast is called Finding Your Summit and we’re going to get into finding your summit. You’ve been on this trajectory since you’re a little kid, winning races, winning World Cups, being on the podium, being an alternate going to Vancouver, now being one of the lucky few to stand on the podium, win a bronze medal in Sochi, and you’ve got Korea. You were probably out there training, training, training, and at the end of the day, for whatever reason, you didn’t make that team. You were not chosen. I’m not sure what the right words are, but that had to be a bitter disappointment.
It was tough. In the four years in between, I had a lot of success. I stood on the World Cup podiums every season between Sochi and PyeongChang in 2018. Last season in 2016 to 2017, I had the best season of my career. I stood on four World Cup podiums. I finished second at the last event when the qualifying process started, so I came in all cylinders firing. I was in the zone. I felt good, I felt prepared. Snowboard Cross is fickle. I came into the season, I felt like I prepared the best I could and I ran into some struggles. It’s interesting because I look back on it and I feel like my snowboarding, my athletic ability and performance, was the best of my career this season. I rode well, but luck is a huge part of it.
A couple races, I found myself in the right place at the wrong time. I got tangled up with a rider at one event in Argentina, so my day was done immediately. In an event in Italy, I got fourth, so I got fourth at a World Cup right before Christmas. Had I gotten third, I would’ve met official Olympic criteria and my ticket would’ve been punched. I finished fourth. We’re talking by a matter of inches or feet, it’s a minute difference. I beat myself up for a while thinking about what I could’ve done differently. I had one more chance. We went to another qualifier and first round I ended up being in the gate next to the guy that won the race and ended up winning the gold medal at the Olympics.
I had an unlucky draw. There were a few things that didn’t go my way throughout the season and I came so painfully close. What happens is when you don’t meet official criteria by being top three, they take the average of your best two results. I had another teammate, Mick Dierdorff, who finished fifth at one race and ninth at another. The average of his fifth and ninth and my fourth and twelfth, his was 100 points higher than mine. We’re talking minute differences. It was pure heartbreak. It’s hard to talk about even still.
I’ve had plenty of adversity come my way. At that point, you can’t do anything about that particular event, which is the Olympics and it’s huge. Were you able to watch it on TV?
This is an important part of my story and something I’m proud of. My coach brought me over to Korea as an official alternate. In 2010, I was a wax tech; I was staff; I was there to support. In 2018 in Korea, I was an official alternate. My coach and the team flew me to Korea with all of my race equipment ready to go because Snowboard Cross is dangerous. We have a lot of injuries. I’ve had three surgeries myself. Injuries are part of the game. The Olympic course is a lot bigger and a lot scarier and more difficult than your average World Cup course. They had me over there in case somebody got hurt and that was a blessing and a curse. It’s hard to sit there and watch these guys compete who I know I can beat from these other nations, even my own teammates. I knew I deserved to be there, but when he told me that I was going to come over as an alternate, I made a decision that I was going to be grateful for the opportunity and I was going to do everything I could to support my teammates and I swallowed my pride.
I went on the hill every day and I played a role as a coach. The course was long and they set me up in the middle to video sections for my teammates to give them feedback. I had a radio and they could call down and ask questions and I committed to supporting them as much as I possibly could. Had one of them gotten hurt, I would’ve gotten to compete. I never wanted anyone to get hurt. I was there to support and be a part of Team USA because like in the NFL, the players are on the field, but there’s so many people behind the scenes that will help getting you across the finish line, whether it’s a sport or a job. If you’re a parent, you have your community, there are always people behind the scenes. For the Team USA, it’s the team behind the team, and I got to be a part of that.
I seized the opportunity. I did a bunch of media stuff. I supported my teammates and I capitalized on the opportunity to be over there and be part of Team USA albeit not as an athlete. As the season wrapped up, it was incredibly disappointing. I was sad and I was heartbroken, but at the same time, I’ve learned to practice gratitude in my life. It sounds simple to say be grateful for the things you have. It’s something I’m constantly working on, but I practice a lot of gratitude and funny enough, I finished this season coming off huge disappointment and shortfalls happier than I did in 2014 when I won a medal because I won a medal and it’s the highest point in your life.
You are on your top of the world and there’s only one place to go from there and it’s down. I was younger and I didn’t have as much perspective on the way life works and I certainly found myself going through some depression, which is pretty common post Olympics in 2014 like, “I won this medal, what am I going to do now?” Over the last few years, I’ve learned to practice gratitude and I was so grateful for the opportunity to go over and support my teammates and be part of the team. I realized how fortunate I am to get to chase my dream and pursue my passion and make a living and doing something that I absolutely love to do.
I didn’t know any of this stuff, so this is all brand-new information for me. There was a guy that was a former Raider teammate of mine, great player, All-Pro player, absolute legend star back at UCLA. His name is Jerry Robinson. I interviewed Jerry on the podcast. I opened up the show and I go, “Jerry, how’s it going? It’s great to have you on.” He goes “I wake up every single day with an attitude of gratitude.” That’s where he’s evolved in his life. With all the great things he’s achieved, he’s also gone through some valleys and he’s come to that point of where appreciating all the small little things have added up. That’s one. Number two is it speaks a lot to your character not to be a complete primadonna and this is about you because it’s not. It’s about the United States, it’s about a team, it’s about your coaches and everybody else that goes back there. There’s only good things that can come out of that experience even though you were in one of the races again and the success you had four years before. There are only good things that are ahead for you. They’re going to see you as a standup guy and what you’re doing at that point.
I talk about this in some of my different public speeches, and I’ve come up with this acronym about accomplishment. It’s centered around this word of summits and it’s how to accomplish things from beginning to end, but the last whole point on this is that once you get to some level of success, you’re all about paying it forward. For you being on that course videotaping, helping out your guys, rooting them on, being there, giving them the high fives and still participating in all the hoopla of everything that was going on, how many people get to go to South Korea? It’s an amazing opportunity and you’re in 1% of 1% of 1% who could go do that.
I’m not sure what your audience demographic is like, but you’re coming from the NFL and Snowboard Cross. Within the snowboard disciplines, there’s a lot of ego. It’s a lot of macho. You have to be big, you have to be tough. Talking about being grateful for these opportunities sounds a little cheesy. I hope that I can at least teach the younger guys on my team and friends and kids. You talked about paying it back. My next summit is to be able to give back to the support that has given me everything, and I’m not Shaun White. I don’t have his pockets or his notoriety, but there are things that I can do and if it’s supporting my teammates who are my competitors, I’m going to do that. If it’s inspiring the next generation of kids to come out and stick with it, then I’m going to do that. Practicing gratitude pays dividends in your life.
This will always stick with you like this will always stick with me. I was never a great NFL player. I was a guy that made it through. I made it through long enough to make my pension and savings and all that stuff, but I had my fifteen minutes of fame while I was there. I will always have that tag associated with my name, it’s former NFL player. I’m in the NFLPA. They have done stories on me, and it’s an amazing thing to be a part of and you will always have that ‘bronze medalist Alex’ and that will always go with you, it will never depart you, and there’re only good things that can come out of that in your journey ahead.
There are two things. First of all, the one thing that’s awesome about the Olympics, it’s important to note, there’s no such thing as a former Olympian. Once you’re an Olympian, you are an Olympian for life. I didn’t know that until I got over to Sochi. It was a cool moment. It still makes me smile. The other thing, going back to my experience in Korea, I went in and I was grateful for the opportunity to go. It wasn’t what I wanted and it wasn’t what I had planned on, but I decided I was going to make the most of the opportunity that was put in front of me, so I was going to go over and support my teammates and do media and be present and show people through social media, the behind the scenes.
I’ve had a lot of opportunities that I never thought I’d have come out of my experience behind the scenes. I’ve had a few appearances and request to do things because people saw that. They saw me capitalizing on my opportunity and they wanted me to share that story, so it’s important for people to know that life is never going to go to plan. You’re always going to have adversity and setback, but if you can try and be grateful and make the most out of the opportunity that is put in front of you, you never know what’s going happen from there on out.
I like to look at it very similar. It depends on the lens that you want to look through. Adversity always hits and I’ve had my share. A lot of the adversity for me, some of the things I’ve gone through, I would have never started on my seven summit journey, I would have never started this podcast, I would never have Facebook fan page and newsletter and all these other things going on in my life today had I not gone through stuff I’ve never wished on anybody. Where do you go from here? As a collective, you guys are all coming off the Olympic Games. You got married, right?
I got married last summer. Coming up is our one-year anniversary.
You’re in Salt Lake City. You’re next to Park City. Great ski resorts up there. What is your path forward?
I’m certainly still committed to competing. I have some fortunate downtime. I’m playing golf and riding bikes. I’m a big cyclist in the summertime and I am going to try and learn from my experiences in the past season and see what I can do to improve myself as an athlete. I’m still competitive and more importantly, I’m still passionate about snowboarding and I still want to keep competing. I don’t have a timeline. The unfortunate thing about the Olympics is a lot of times, it puts people on a timetable whether you’re going to make the next Olympic team and people keep asking me like, “Are you going to go for the next games 2022 in China? Are you going to go?” I’m like, “I’m going to try and go to the next games.” I don’t know if I’ll go for another four years. I don’t know if I’m going to six or two or what it is, but now I’m super passionate about snowboarding and competing and so I’m going to keep my head down.
I’m starting school, 31 years old. I’m going to be a freshman at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. They have a great program. Snowboarding doesn’t have the NCAA like football or baseball or basketball, so it’s hard for us to get an education. Westminster has partnered with the US Ski & Snowboard Team to allow athletes to go for free while they’re competing. I’ve done a few summer classes over the past but I got enrolled for the summer. I’m going to start going to school. From here, another thing I’m trying to do is give back. I became an ambassador for NWSEF. It’s a program that is trying to get inner city kids into snow sports, whether that’s cross-country skiing or snowboarding or alpine skiing; working with them to try and spread the message that through outdoor activity, you can create opportunities.
[Tweet “Practicing gratitude pays dividends in your life.”]
Being an athlete will teach you discipline and hard work and help kids get through school. I’m looking at working with an app that pairs high school students with college students or professionals so that they can learn from those athletes like, “What did you do in high school?” just by looking. It’s a new startup. I’m hoping to work with those guys and try and help kids make the step into whatever it is, whether it’s from high school to the pros or high school to college or even if it’s a club level thing but giving back is something that I’d love to be able to do more of and focus on my time and energy on.
You’re on the right track and you’re courageous. I can tell you’re a humble guy, full of gratitude, and you’re appreciative of the experiences that you’ve had to date. You’re keeping all opportunities open as you launch into the future.
There’s a lot of unknown in front of me and that’s scary and exciting at the same time, but I’m looking forward to it.
Number one, I’m in Sun Valley. Number two, you’re in Salt Lake City. You’re four hours from me. I’ve got some killer climbing and mountain bike riding literally on my door, so you are always invited to come here. You’ve got some other friends here. I’d love to paddle out with you and go do some of these hikes or climbs or on a bike.
I’m a big rock climber. I’m not an alpinist like you, but I certainly enjoy roping up and getting out there. Cycling is a huge passion for me, so I’d love to get up to Sun Valley. If you’re looking for some locals, Curtis Bacca is one of the wax technicians for our team. He owns The Waxroom in Sun Valley. It’s in Ketchum. Go by and stop by and see him. He played college football at Boise State, so if you tell him you played in the NFL, he’d be real excited to talk shop with you and introduce you to more people in the community up there.
That’s what I’m looking to do. Have a great day. I appreciate you coming on the podcast and best of luck to you in the future.
Mark, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.