SOCHI, Russia – David Wise doesn’t exactly exude the free-spirited qualities of a half-pipe skier. He doesn’t have shaggy hair, he’s not bursting with enthusiasm, he doesn’t speak in slang, and he’s a family man at age 23.
But spend just one minute listening to the American gold medalist’s responses at a recent press conference following his first-place finish in the freestyle skiing halfpipe competition on Feb. 18, and you quickly realize he has perhaps the most important quality in an athlete: class.
As the Winter Olympics come to a close, Wise might be remembered as the truly great American story of the Games. Some athletes would take the newfound spotlight as an opportunity to boast about themselves after taking gold, but not Wise. He sees beyond his glory, and focuses on praising other skiers, and the future of freestyle halfpipe skiing.
“If I can inspire some young kids to get into this sport and start pursuing their dreams right now, then I would have done well in this sport,” Wise said to reporters.
The Sochi Games marked the Olympic debut of halfpipe skiing, and the sport appears to have a fine spokesman in their first-ever gold medalist.
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It also turns out that the Reno resident is quite talented.
Under blustery conditions at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, Wise was able to post a first-heat score of 92.00, edging Mike Riddle (90.60) of Canada, and France's Kevin Rolland (88.6). It was a particularly impressive performance under tough circumstances.
"It's one thing if you have consistent conditions, as in it's consistently bad," he said. "But it was kind of in and out. The fog would roll in, and then it would start to rain, and when it was raining it was fast. Then it would start to snow again and it would get slow."
Though Wise was able to overcome a tough situation, he wasn't in the mood to boast. He shifted to how well the other skiers coped.
"I'm honestly really proud of free skiing and how well everybody skied last night in spite of the conditions, because we've had some bad weather contests already this year that were at a way lower level than last night," Wise added. "I think everybody, because it was the Olympics, came out and threw down, and still put on a pretty good show, so I'm proud to have been a part of it.
"I'm still trying to believe this whole crazy thing. I feel so proud to be part of this sport and to stand at the top of the podium is just amazing."
Wise is probably smart to promote the burgeoning sport, which usually receives all of its visibility at the X Games. Detractors of halfpipe skiing may suggest that the halfpipe is far more conducive to snowboarding than skiing, and that it is too much of a daredevil event.
So if the sport still needs an additional dose of credibility, the affable Wise is probably the appropriate athlete to deliver it. He’s fully aware of the journey it took to receive more recognition and respect.
“It’s been a long road to get here,” he said. “I remember being 15 years old watching the X Games.”
He also knows that pettiness won’t get the sport very far. When a reporter asked him about his experience talking to NBC’s Bob Costas, there wasn’t even a hint of anger or bitterness towards the respected broadcaster.
Overblown criticism had been directed at Costas for a tounge-in-cheek remark he made on the “Today” show in January, when he mentioned that halfpipe skiing was something akin to the MTV program “Jackass.”
But Wise was not there to criticize the veteran Olympic broadcaster.
“He was really respectful. I think everybody [is allowed] an off-hand comment every once in a while,” Wise said.
Sochi was not the first location where Wise has shined. He also won the skiing halfpipe at the 2013 FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships in Voss, Norway, last March. He won gold in the last three Winter X Games in Aspen in the superpipe following an injured season in 2009-2010.
While superstar Shaun White failed to capture a medal in the snowboard halfpipe in Sochi, Wise might be providing an additional face to skiing. He might not have the marketability of White, but Wise doesn’t seem to lack charisma.
Reporters were hanging on his every word at the Dostoyevsky Hall press conference room, as he showed off the heart-shaped rock his wife Alexandra gave him for good luck.
Before the competition, Wise posted on Twitter: “My wifey brought me a special souvenir from #Reno for good luck. Now it's riding around in my pocket. Hope it works. #Olympics are happening right now, if you're not watching, you should be! @missuswise”.
It did work, and the clean-cut kid sure had the good sense to give the media a cool story.
The rest of his Twitter postings are less jaw dropping, but they are nearly as endearing. Like how he posted a message in support of the Ladies’ halfpipe, which was just one of many congratulations he has sent out to other athletes.
Scanning his website, you wouldn't know that he has also worked as a local youth leader. Pastor John McKendricks of Valley View Christian Fellowship told a local Reno TV station that Wise has worked with him for the past five years.
Indeed, you can’t help but pull for Wise. His maturity and humility can perhaps help add new viewers to a sport that may need to gain a following beyond the Olympics and the X Games.
"David is living the all-American dream. He has a wife and a daughter. He's a philanthropist and he's very successful in competition at a young age," Chris Ernst, a longtime free-ski analyst, told ESPN.
"That gives a whole different look to marketers who are going after a wholesome athlete. Maybe he's the first athlete on a Wheaties box with his family."