X Games medalist knows his priorities

The New York TimesDecember 3, 2013 

Two years of halfpipe freestyle skiing domination make David Wise the favorite when the event debuts in the Olympics in Sochi.


winter sports

RENO, Nev. – The light from the Monster Energy refrigerator, squatting on the floor below the framed wedding photos and X Games gold medals, cast a steady glow in the living room. The Smith Optics sunglasses come in handy in the high-desert autumn sun, just as they will in the snow-blinding mountains of winter.

Pairs of 4Frnt skis stood in various corners of the house, awaiting deployment.

Among David Wise’s sponsor-given goodies, however, none might prove as useful as Pampers. The promised supply from Procter & Gamble was expected anytime. Until then, Wise and his wife, Alexandra, were stuck buying diapers at Costco for their 2-year-old daughter, Nayeli, a chatterbox in pigtails.

“No, they didn’t come today,” Alexandra said when Wise arrived home one recent afternoon.

Freestyle skiing in the halfpipe will make its Olympic debut in Sochi, Russia, in February, and Wise is a gold-medal favorite, a two-planked version of snowboarder Shaun White. Mainstream audiences await, but Wise — married at 20, now a family man raising a toddler at 23 — has long stood out for more than his acrobatic accomplishments.

Many snowboard and freestyle contestants seem molded from the same assembly line, models of branded dishevelment marketed as easygoing and athletic slackers, usually with long hair and clothed in flannel, like guitarists from a jam band enjoying a day in the snow.

In the action-sports world that he now dominates, Wise is counterculture to the counterculture. He is the undude.

“There’s an image they want,” Wise said. “And I didn’t fit that for a long time. Even after I won the X Games the first time, they said: ‘We don’t know what to do with this guy. He’s different.’ ”

“They called him vanilla,” Alexandra said, sitting close to him on the couch.

Said Wise: “My rebuttal to that is: Why do you want something that has been done before? It’s the people who are different who end up shaping the culture.”

He is not a nerd, and he is not an outsider. There is nothing like winning X Games gold the past two years to build respect and credibility.

He can hang with the dudes, because he is nice and funny and smart and young. For a long time, he had long hair, too.

He played high school football and baseball until skiing commandeered his schedule. He plays on two softball teams in the summer. He rides mountain bikes and a motorcycle.

He drives fast — so fast that he was pulled over, a reporter in the front seat, on the way to lunch at his favorite Mexican restaurant after an hourlong session with a physical therapist to work on his neck, which he hurt last summer while doing flips into water off a rope swing.

No. Not a nerd.

But Wise is different, surprisingly grounded for someone who makes a living flying through the air. He hunts, less for the thrill of the capture (he brought home a bull elk this year) than for the chance to be alone with his thoughts.

He is a voracious reader (his favorite author is C.S. Lewis) and an occasional writer of poetry.

During his travels, he collects heart-shaped rocks for Alexandra and places them amid a collection on the brick windowsill outside their front door. (“Now I’ve got the curse of spotting them,” he said.)

Like Alexandra, he is a youth pastor. Writing and missionary work are potential future occupations.

“There’s a lot more to life than skiing,” Wise said. “We’re just flipping and skiing in the halfpipe. It’s not an eternally lasting thing.”

David and Alexandra — he calls her Lexi — were two grades apart and grew up on opposite sides of Reno.

They met during one flirtatious summer at church camp. Romance was interrupted for nearly three years by distance and life, including Wise’s burgeoning ski career. They reconnected at church, then through a deep Facebook chat.

They were engaged within a year, on Alexandra’s 19th birthday, in February 2011. Wise took her to nearby Lake Tahoe for snowshoeing under a full moon and gave her a poem he had written in glow-in-the-dark ink. He dropped to one knee and proposed.

“Of course,” she said.

Nayeli was born months before Wise won his first X Games gold medal in the halfpipe in 2012, a title he defended in Aspen this year. He credits his breakout to broader perspective. There is less pressure when you know there is more to life.

“It’s not a big coincidence that all the big events that I’ve won were after Nayeli was born,” Wise said. “I think it’s kind of cheating, because it’s something none of my competition has.”

On Tuesday nights, the Wises often invite friends and relatives for dinner at their rented split-level home.

Nayeli sits in a high chair at the head of the table.

The family holds hands and prays — “Amen!” Nayeli shouts — then eats lasagna and elk steaks. After dinner, Wise and Timko played table tennis on a piece of plywood. Nayeli sat bundled nearby on the sofa watching a cartoon. She stood, walked and tripped. Timko scored an easy point.

“Sorry, I got distracted by the bonk,” Wise said.

“Sure, use the kid excuse,” Timko said.

“People look at me and say: ‘Man, you’re married and have a kid? Your life is over,’ ” Wise said. “And I think, ‘My life is just beginning.’ ”

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