KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- They went to sleep Monday night in the same room in the same athlete village at the same Olympics. They woke up Tuesday morning with the same goal. But by the end of the first round of men's snowboardcross racing at Sochi's Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, the paths of Nate Holland and Alex Deibold had wildly diverged.
Chasing teammate Trevor Jacob in the third heat of the opening round of 39 snowboarders, Holland overshot a jump, slid out in the flats and finished out of the top three. His third attempt at an Olympic medal ended before half the field had even lined up in the start gate to race their first heats. "There's something about these Olympic rings," Holland said. "They give me a lot of joy and drive and ambition. And they cause me a lot of heartache."
One heat earlier, Deibold had finished third and moved on to the quarterfinals, where he raced with a blend of patience and aggression and avoided a potentially day-ending melee. He did the same in the semis and the finals, finishing a consistent third in every heat while the course continued to change through fog and rain and snow. In his first Olympics, and with Holland standing at the finish, Deibold won the U.S. team's only snowboardcross medal at these Olympics, a bronze. And then his roommate tackled him.
"To have Nate tackle me at the bottom and hug me and support me was awesome," Deibold said. "He's such a fierce competitor that you don't always see that out of him. To have him lift me up like that was a really cool feeling. Nate is one of the greatest racers in history, up with [Shaun] Palmer. It's going to be a hard one for him. He made the same sacrifices I made to get here."
Yet their paths to this day were incredibly different.
Holland, 35, has been a member of the U.S. team for nine years. He's won six World Cup races and 17 World Cup medals, and he's won the X Games a record seven times. He competed in his first Olympics in Torino in 2006 and finished 14th, made the team again in Vancouver and just missed the podium, finishing fourth. But this year, he's struggled, calling 2013-14 his "season of adversity." He broke his clavicle in December and fought just to qualify. But in late January, he hit his stride, winning the X Games.
The next week, Holland arrived in Sochi as a favorite, racing under the weight of more than a decade of pressure. His impressive résumé, like that of teammate Lindsey Jacobellis, is missing but one accolade: an Olympic gold medal. "This has been a goal of mine for 10 years now, to get an Olympic medal, and I had three shots at it, three opportunities," he said. "I'm pretty fortunate. But it sucks how it ended. Three Olympics and three falls. There's something about those five rings."
Deibold, 27, has never won a World Cup. Or the X Games. (His best finish is fourth in 2012.) In Vancouver, he attended his first Olympics as a support team member, working as a wax technician for Holland, Seth Wescott, Nick Baumgartner and Graham Watanabe. He competed the past season as a member of U.S. Snowboarding's B team, which meant that in addition to racing, he was back waxing and scraping his teammates' boards at World Cup races and the X Games. His first World Cup podium came last year, when he finished second at the Sochi test event in similarly warm, rainy conditions. This season was his best yet: He made three of four finals in qualifying events and was the first rider to qualify for the U.S. team.
Still, Deibold came to Sochi carrying few expectations. That he was here as a team member, and not as a wax tech, was a Cinderella story in itself. The rest was icing. "It was nice not to have that pressure," Deibold said. "Look at the favorites, Ted [Ligety] and Mikaela [Shiffrin], Bode [Miller], Shaun. Look at Shaun White. People will pick him apart because he didn't win. But that pressure is unbelievable. Hopefully I'll have to learn how to deal with it sometime. But it's been nice to only worry about the expectations I put on myself and focus on my snowboarding."
And for the first time in a long while, it was nice to not have to focus on the snowboarding -- or the snowboards -- of anyone else.
"My experience in Vancouver was grueling work, but it was a situation I'm grateful for," Deibold said. "I don't shy away from hard work, and it gave me motivation over the last four years, through surgeries and low points. To be on the podium and wrap the flag around myself, all that hard work and sacrifice doesn't seem like a damn thing. After 10 years, I made the A team today. I'm going to enjoy not waxing my own boards for a little while."
That would be different.