Immediately after finishing his final run in the freestyle skiing halfpipe event, David Wise tossed his ski poles into the snow. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Wise said, apologizing to no one in particular. “I got a little excited.”
Wise had good reason to celebrate. His first two runs of the three-run final had been busts, sabotaged by a broken binding on his skis. But the binding held together for his last run, a superlative, twist-and-flip laden jaunt that earned him a score of 97.20—5.20 points higher than the mark that won him the gold in Sochi. Wise’s superlative final run held up, earning his second consecutive Olympic title. As I watched him come through in the clutch and listened to NBC’s announcers read off his accolades, I wondered one simple thing: Why isn’t David Wise super famous?
He ought to be. Wise is the best freestyle halfpipe skier in the world, and the only man ever to win gold in the freestyle ski halfpipe event, which made its Olympic debut in Sochi. Elizabeth Marian Swaney’s jerky example notwithstanding, the halfpipe is a thrilling stage for skiers, who tend to fly higher than their snowboarding counterparts. Wise has mastered the art of “skiing backward while launching oneself off the edge of a 22-foot wall of ice, rotating like a gyroscope and landing in the ideal position for the next trick,” as John Branch once wrote for the New York Times.
Moreover, he seems like a very likable guy. He helps lead his church youth group in Reno, Nevada. He donated a portion of his competition earnings this year to a foundation—founded by his sister—that helps provide prosthetic limbs to needy patients in Haiti. (His sister lost a leg in a paddleboarding accident.) He told NBC it was “more important to me to be the best husband and father I can be than to win any title or championship.” He also brought his young son up on the awards podium, which means Wise is the only medalist in Pyeongchang to have an immediate use for those weird stuffed tigers.
And yet for all he has going for him, Wise is less well known than, say, Ted Ligety and Jamie Anderson. His Wikipedia page is basically a stub. He doesn’t even appear on Wikipedia’s list of notable people with the surname Wise. (David Wise the video-game music composer: notable! David Wise the halfpipe skier: not notable!) This boggles my mind. If Shaun White, a noted jerk, is renowned for snowboarding the halfpipe, then why isn’t Wise famous for skiing the halfpipe? It’s the same damn halfpipe!
The problem, as I see it, is threefold. First, halfpipe skiing is still very new to the Winter Games, and, as such, does not yet feel integral to the Olympic experience. You can be the best in the world at a sport and still go unnoticed if it’s considered a marginal event. Halfpipe skiing is in a weird spot in the winter sports Venn diagram, as it’s easy for fans of both snowboarding and Alpine skiing to ignore. The snowboard fans can just watch the snowboard halfpipe. The Alpine skiing cognoscenti—well, they’re just snobs.
Second, halfpipe skiing seems derivative of halfpipe snowboarding. I said as much in my Olympics preview rankings a few weeks ago. Whether or not it’s true, that perception is a problem for the likes of David Wise, as it makes his exploits seem secondary. Let’s say I was the best in the world at a fictional variant on curling that took place in the snow instead of on a sheet of ice. “Come watch my sport, it’s just like curling except a little different,” I’d say. “No, thanks, I’ll just watch actual curling, you poser,” you’d reply. And that’s the story of how fictional me developed a massive chip on his shoulder about a sport that doesn’t exist.
Finally, Wise might be too nice to be a celebrity. Wise is an awesome athlete, but he isn’t cool like Chloe Kim or Adam Rippon. This is a guy who, in a blog post on his website last year, wrote, “No communication method says love like a handwritten note or postcard received in the old-fashioned snail mail. Even if it arrives after you’ve returned, it holds immense value to your loved ones.” This is a guy who apologized to the snow for throwing his poles at it. “He’s not great at talking about himself,” one of his coaches told the Los Angeles Times. That is not typically a quality associated with famous people.
I want David Wise to be more famous because I think his work deserves recognition. But maybe it’s enough for him to just be great at halfpipe skiing, and for his work to speak for itself. Two gold medals into his Olympic career, it seems to be speaking loud and clear.