On Thursday morning in Beijing, American snowboarder Nick Baumgartner started crying. The Olympic snowboardcross racer had just finished third in his quarterfinal heat, meaning he would not advance. Beijing would be the fourth consecutive Winter Games that Baumgartner had finished off the podium—and he knew it was unlikely that he’d get to return for a fifth try.
“What’s going through your mind right now?” asked NBC’s Hailey Hunter.
“Heartbreak,” said Baumgartner. “I don’t think people know how much we put into this. I put so much time and effort, and then one little mistake, and it’s gone. I’m 40 years old. I mean, I’m running out of chances.”
It was one of the most intensely human moments of the 2022 Beijing Games. And the unexpected coda to Baumgartner’s story, which came two days later, reminded me why, despite all of their bloat and sanctimony and propaganda, the Olympics can still be transcendent.
No one has ever called Nick Baumgartner the best snowboarder of all time. Though he’s better at what he does than 99.9 percent of people who’ve ever tried it—you don’t make four consecutive Olympic teams if you’re not—he’s far from a standout among his peers. In his 15-year World Cup career, he’s snagged only two first-place finishes, the most recent in 2011.
The athletes that get the bulk of the attention from the NBC Olympics hype machine are, naturally, the best performers in the most prominent events, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We watch the Olympics to marvel at near-superhuman skill, and medals are a logical shorthand for greatness. But there is something equally great—or at least equally compelling—about the athletes who keep going even though they don’t achieve conventional metrics of success. If the superstars make the Olympics worth watching, then the grinders make them worth caring about.
One of the best moments of the 2018 Winter Games came when the U.S. won its first-ever gold in curling. Before Pyeongchang, John Shuster had been to three consecutive Winter Olympics, and the best he’d done had been a bronze medal in Torino in 2006. He didn’t make a living from curling; he worked at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Baumgartner is the John Shuster of snowboarding. Because snowboardcross isn’t as popular as halfpipe, he doesn’t have big-money sponsors. Instead, he has worked for years pouring concrete in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where he lives. He once had to send his Olympic ring in for repairs because of the damage it sustained while he wore it at work.
“Concrete hurts you,” he told the Denver Post in 2018. “When I go out there and I’m working concrete destroying my body, it makes me not go home afterward. I go to the gym and I work harder, so I can come back and I can kick butt, because snowboarding is way more fun than concrete.” That year, in Pyeongchang, he finished fourth in snowboardcross, and competed alongside teammates who also worked manual labor in the offseason: a plumber, a landscaper, a carpenter. “I’ll be here in four years, absolutely,” Baumgartner told the Washington Post at the time. “If I got to go until I’m 100 to get a medal, I’m going to keep doing it.”
The Olympics haven’t been strictly amateur events for a very long time, if indeed they ever were. But it’s athletes like Baumgartner who keep the Games linked to their idealistic roots—to the vision of normal people interrupting their lives for two weeks every four years to go and compete against each other, and then go home and pick up where they left off. While other snowboarders get halfpipes built for them by their corporate sponsors, Baumgartner lived in his van last summer. Not only is he the oldest member of Team USA, he’s old enough to have a kid who is older than the youngest member of Team USA. “Pretty cool when your son goes to high school and brags about you,” Baumgartner told the AP a couple of days ago. “I don’t think many parents get to experience that.”
It’s easy to complain about the cloying human-interest stories that clog up NBC’s Olympics coverage. The problem, though, isn’t that the network focuses on athletes’ backstories. It’s that it manufactures the wrong heroes. It’s not enough for Shaun White to be arguably the best in the world in his event; NBC also wants us to think that he’s relatable. I find this frustrating not just because Shaun White clearly isn’t relatable, but because there are all kinds of Olympians whose backgrounds and journeys are far more compelling—people who care so deeply about what they do that they make us care, too.
Baumgartner’s emotional post-race interview thrust him into the spotlight briefly, if only as a chance for NBC to say goodbye to someone they’d never given us the chance to know.
“It’s been really fun to watch you throughout the years, Nick,” said Hailey Hunter. “Do you think we’ll see you in the future?”
“I ain’t stoppin’ on this,” he said, blinking back tears. “I gotta do something better to end with.”
Two days later, he got his chance.
Going into the Beijing Games, Baumgartner hadn’t realized that he would be eligible to compete in a second event: mixed snowboard cross, which is on the Olympic program for the first time in 2022. It turned out, though, that his World Cup ranking qualified him for a spot. Even better, he would be partnered with all-time snowboardcross great Lindsey Jacobellis.
The duo advanced through heat after heat until they reached the finals. Baumgartner finished first in his portion of the race, and then settled in, on the precipice of gold, to watch Jacobellis bring it home.
When she did, at long, long last, Nick Baumgartner had a different reason to cry.