My cousin, a halfpipe freestyle skiing Olympian

MIKE WISE
Last updated 05:00 06/02/2014

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Two years ago, a forwarded email from a "Tom Wise" arrived in my inbox, alerting all Wise family members that "David was competing this weekend in the finals of the Winter Dew Tour on NBC."

David . . . David . . . Wait: The 8-year-old little blond hellion I met at the North Lake Tahoe reunion in 1998, where he was bumming pastries off Uncle Ted because his parents had already told him no? That kid, the son of my father's cousin?

So I tuned in to watch an aerialist whose feet are binded into fibreglass spears dip into a frozen sluice, pick up speed and astoundingly rotate his body 1260 degrees in the air, the trick he pioneered — three-and-a-half rotations of his 6-foot, 195-pound compact frame. And he landed it — twice.

Cuz!

Yes, America, my second cousin is an Olympian. Christine Brennan and Bob Costas can't say that.

David Wise is the gold-medal favourite in the halfpipe freestyle skiing competition February 18 in Sochi, where his event debuts as an Olympic sport. He has won the X-Games three times in a row.

It is so totally awesome and radical having a distant cousin as an Olympian that, by association, it makes 50-year-old, hairless men think they are totally awesome and radical.

Having been repulsed when newly minted professional athletes are besieged by distant relatives shortly after signing their first contracts, I immediately flew to Reno, Nevada, to ask David if he remembers my telling him I knew he would grow up to be an Olympian and I'm glad we've remained extremely close over the years (never mind the lack of contact since 1998).

"It's really nice to meet you," he said. "Um, again."

Reno and the neighbouring Sparks represent the core of both of our roots. The Union Pacific Railroad employed Tom and my father's grandfather — my and David's great-grandfather — Harry Wise. When my father suddenly passed last February, one of his possessions bequeathed to me was Grandpa Harry's old, gold conductor's watch that assured the exact time was kept on the tracks to avert tragedy in the 1930s.

Those tracks still carry rumbling trains past the sagebrush in Tom's back yard, which lies on the outskirts of the downtown casinos and abuts the roiling Truckee River, our family's original trout stream.

"I've been to some amazing places in the world, but this will always be home," David says.

He's incredibly humble, recently labelled "The UnDude" by the New York Times because he doesn't party and is so socially conscious he takes the 10 percent of his winnings that customarily go to drinks for other skiers and donates it to water projects in the Dominican Republic, where his sister Christy works.

"I drink, but I probably only really drink on New Year's and my birthday," he says "When I get up, and there's fresh powder, and you can hear the birds and you can see the sun cresting over the mountains, I just feel like that life keeps me from having the kind of day I want to have."

"To each their own. This works for me. This is who I am."

At Abel's Mexican restaurant last week, the staff comes out to wish him well. Everywhere we go — radio stations, Smithridge Elementary with Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval — everyone wants to wish David well.

He tells the largest Latin grade school in Reno he was not a very good student early on, that he didn't like school. But, he says, "It's not about where you're at right now. Don't let anybody tell you that."

David knows. Prior to the 2012 X Games, he had overcome two ACL surgeries and was living on meagre winnings and minimal sponsorships, both of which paid for international travel.

"We never had to turn the heat off or just eat Top Ramen, but there were a couple tight squeezes in there," he says as his wife, Lexi, nods. "Before the 2011 X Games, I had this moment where I looked in my bank account and realised, 'This is it.' "

But in his breakout moment he landed every jump in his routine, his amplitude as impressive as his technique and creativity. Winning $25,000 for his first X Games gold, he won the Dew Tour, a Grand Prix and gradually became The Guy — the "Wiseguy," they call him — in superpipe free ski.

David is in unbelievable shape, scaling stairs while hopping on one leg, all these crazy torsion and core exercises for his specific athletic discipline. He sometimes seems so incredibly driven and focused I'm thinking we may not be related.

He's already done Matt Lauer. Jenna Bush was in Reno last Wednesday for the Today Show. His Reno P.R. team is also pitching him to Jimmy Fallon, challenging the late-night star to some balance exercises.

I don't know how ready America is for a squeaky clean kid who lost his first real ski coach, Clay Beck, five years ago in a plane crash and whose grandfather, Colorado legend Bob Wise, became a legendary high school coach after retiring from the Los Angeles Rams. Who wants a story about a kid who didn't fall prey to the temptations of Reno, who has been on a natural high for years?

Can we possibly be ready for the anti-Bode, a guy who skis for free diapers, who says, in earnest, "Oh, I'm really looking forward to going over to the P&G (Procter & Gamble) House in Sochi. I heard they got a great set-up."

"He's the counterculture to the counterculture," Max McManus, his trainer, says as David balances a board on a ball while pumping 40-pound dumb bells. "He's the guy that goes on the Wheaties box. That should be the story now, not the grungy kid who's a freakin' gamer all day and smokes pot."

Max has been training David for 10 years, since David was 13.

"His Dad just didn't want him to get hurt and learn to do it the right way if he was going to do this," he says. "You don't know where it's going to go then, you know. But he stayed on track. Had some help from upstairs."

He says there was another young phenom with even more talent and ability. What happened to the other kid? "It's Reno," Max says, shaking his head. "Lots of obstacles."

My cousin: a soaring, somewhat boring, no-apparent-issues 23-year-old, who figured out life much earlier than the rest of us, waiting to drop into the halfpipe and blow your mind.

He's not on the Wheaties box yet?

All sarcasm aside, what a moment that will be, watching David descend into his run, do what he does so purposefully, powerfully and gracefully two Tuesdays from now in Sochi, seeing that pinned-on "Wise-USA" on his parka before he goes for the gold.

Proud doesn't even begin to cover it.

-Washington Post

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