Nick Baumgartner is glad to be back home after taking part in the Winter Olympics at Sochi, Russia, last month.
IRON RIVER—On a dark, country highway, one of the world’s top athletes is driving home, alone. It’s after midnight and he’s been through a lot.
In the last two days Nick Baumgartner has seen his dream of an Olympic medal vanish, he’s felt the self-imposed burden of expectations crush down on his spirit. and he’s toiled through an exhausting 25-hour journey from Russia to Germany to Chicago and to Green Bay, watching one movie after another to pass the time.
Probably no one in his family - especially his son, Landon - will be awake when he pulls into his hometown. But maybe, just maybe, someone will be waiting for him.
“It’s basically I can’t wait to see my dog flip out when she sees me walk in the door,” Baumgartner recalls.
When the 32-year-old Olympic snowboarder walks through the door of his parents’ home, Bob and Mary are fast asleep. So Nick whispers, seeking the solace of man’s best friend.
“Oakley, Oakley come here, come here.”
But he hears only silence. No whoops, barks or cries from his 4-year-old black Labrador. Oakley is with Landon at his mother Tina Sundelius’ home, and Baumgartner, just a bit more than a day after having the eyes of Olympic fans across the globe on him, might as well be invisible as the clock ticks toward 3 a.m.
So he steps back into the frigid cold and heads to his own house, where he will attempt to decompress enough to get a few hours sleep …
As Baumgartner knows and will be reminded of the next morning, he’s not really alone. He’s got a close-knit family, a beloved son and a community of well-wishers who are dying to see him. After all, this is home.
“I’ve said it a hundred times, the best part of every snowboard trip that I take is coming back here to Michigan,” Baumgartner said. “I have so much support here, and there are so many amazing people.”
The following morning he became reacquainted with those folks when he headed out with his father to Mr. T’s for breakfast. While Baumgartner expressed worries on his Facebook page that he let down his supporters back home after he failed to get out of his heat in the men’s snowboard cross in Sochi, Russia, there’s none of that kind of talk when he started bumping into people around town.
Jill Sabotta, owner of Alice’s Supper Club, which hosted a fundraiser for Baumgartner prior to his departure for Europe, said the last thing she thinks Baumgartner should feel is guilty.
“Oh my gosh, that’s just so not right to feel that way,” said Sabotta, who has known Baumgartner since he was a youngster. “He’s such an inspiration. How many people achieve something like that? We’re very proud of him.”
Baumgartner said he’s had second thoughts about publicly stating his concerns because he doesn’t want any of his fans to worry that he’s in some kind of funk after the games. He insists he’s not, and by the schedule he’s been keeping one tends to believe him.
Really, he’s barely stopped since he’s been back in the U.P. He attended his son’s basketball tournament in Hancock the weekend after returning and began his post-Olympic speaking tour with an event at Houghton Elementary School last Wednesday.
All this activity is how Baumgartner approaches life, anyway. His eyes burn with intensity even when he smiles and even when he’s so tired he can’t keep from yawning. He speaks of his future in terms of “my next plan of attack.”
In short, he’s an adrenaline junkie who lives for speed and action, a mindset that has helped him avoid the emptiness that athletes often feel after peaking for a big competition.
“If I could get two seconds to just relax and not go full speed, I might feel that,” Baumgartner said. “But I don’t see that happening ever. It’s always on the go, and I hope to make it even more on the go.”
In his hyperactivity, Baumgartner didn’t pause long enough to watch a replay of his race until nine days after that rainy morning in Sochi. When he finally did, he watched the video largely in silence. The race was largely lost when Baumgartner came up short and didn’t clear the first jump. He did charge back into the race temporarily, but ended up fourth in the five-man heat.
After the two-minute video concluded, Baumgartner, with his almost ever-present smile, simply said, “Yuk. I’m never going to watch that again.”
Lest anyone think he’s devastated by the result, Baumgartner is not. He just isn’t a half-glass-empty guy. He said he’s “super stoked” about what he’s done, though he wishes he did better in Sochi. He’s physically healthy and is looking forward to his next snowboard cross race in Veysonnaz, Switzerland, on March 10.
While many Olympic athletes stay around for the closing ceremonies, Baumgartner didn’t. Before leaving for Russia, he sat down with Landon, and they agreed that Dad would fly back right away.
So he arose on Feb. 19, one day after his race, headed for the airport in mid-morning and set off on his long journey home to keep the promise he’d made to his son, who was worried about his safety.
“The media painted a picture [before the Olympics] about how dangerous it is over there. Unfortunately, my 9-year-old son saw that all. So we talked about it, and I told him I would come home immediately after.”
Nick first saw his boy the morning after his return. He headed to Stambaugh Elementary School, where Landon is a fourth grader. Once inside the school, Baumgartner strolled to Landon’s classroom and knocked on the glass. Landon greeted his father with a smile and a bear hug.
“When things haven’t gone your way and you get a hug from your son, it makes everything better.”
The Olympic experience isn’t quite over for Nick and Landon. Baumgartner entered his son in a contest for the O.C. Tanner Inspiration award. Baumgartner penned a short story saying how his son inspires his athletic efforts, and voters have responded. Nick and Landon were running away with the lead as of late last week. Landon had more than 228,000 votes, with the closest competitor a distant second with about113,000.
The contest ends on March 16, and the winner receives a hand-crafted 14K gold commemorative ring.
As time moves forward, Baumgartner plans to continue his snowboarding career well into the future. He aims to earn a spot on his third Olympic team, the 2018 games in Pyeonchang, South Korea. He also wants to continue his speaking engagements and return to off-road truck racing, which he started in 2011.
While all this may sound exhausting, Baumgartner is fueled by both an immense inner drive and large support from his hometown.
“I have so much power and backing. It’s hard not to go out there every day and just give it everything you got to try to bring some recognition back to this area. That gives you all the drive you need.”
And so the attack continues.