The king of snowboard cross
Dominant on the World Cup scene since 2008, French snowboard cross star Pierre Vaultier had to bide his time before tasting major championships success. After finally landing Olympic gold at Sochi 2014, an achievement made all the more notable by the fact he was carrying an injury, Vaultier went on to win the world title at Sierra Nevada in March 2017, before retaining his Olympic crown at PyeongChang 2018 and then securing a sixth FIS crystal globe.
A pioneering Olympian
Born in Briançon in France’s Hautes-Alpes, snowboard cross star Pierre Vaultier made his international debut in 2005, a year in which he also won his first national title and placed third at the FIS Snowboard Junior World Championships in Zermatt (SUI). The Frenchman was 18 when he took part in the inaugural Olympic snowboard cross competition at Turin 2006, where he finished 35th, gaining valuable experience for the future.
His first taste of Olympic competition marked the start of a glittering career. A World Cup winner for the first time in Stoneham (USA) in March 2007, he scored four more victories the following season to collect his maiden snow cross crystal globe.
Vaultier suffered an injury setback in 2009 but was back on top the next season, scoring six wins to lift another crystal globe and finish second in the overall snowboard standings. Yet he fell short of expectations at Vancouver 2010. Though expected to challenge for gold, he lost out in the quarter-finals and ended in ninth place.
A way of life
“Snowboard ties in with my philosophy towards life, which has helped me, ever since I was young, to be open-minded and to drink in everything that sport has to offer, both its values and constraints,” explained Vaultier. ”I learned at a very early age to divide my time between my sporting career and my studies, so that I could continue studying geography
“I was on skis for the first time when I was two and I just moved towards snowboard when I was five, and then into competition (first in the giant slalom and then snowboard cross). I’ve improved steadily throughout my sporting career and I’ve been able to reach the top of my discipline. What I love about snowboard is the spirit and sense of freedom that make it so different to other sports. I love fighting to get to the line first and being fastest in a race.”
While success proved elusive for Vaultier on the World Championship and Olympic scenes, he remained a formidable force in the World Cup, lifting his third snowboard cross crystal globe in 2012. However, his career came to an abrupt halt on 21 December 2013, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee at a World Cup event in Lake Louise (USA).
“My participation at the Sochi Games was in serious doubt, but my surgeon set me a crazy challenge,” Vaultier later explained. “He ruled out an operation and prescribed muscle re-education and strengthening exercises so that I could go out and compete in the most important race of my life on 18 February 2014.”
His surgeon’s gamble paid off, with Vaultier making the start line for the snowboard cross at Sochi 2014, though he was not expected to contend for the medals, not least because he was wearing a splint on his right leg.
Thick fog led to the cancellation of the seeding run, forcing the whole field into an elimination round that saw several favourites tumble out of the competition. Vaultier had no such problems. Looking assured and flying into the jumps, the Frenchman won his elimination-round, quarter-final and semi-final races from the front. In the final, he battled it out with Russia’s Nikolay Olyunin on the first few corners before gradually pulling away to win by a comfortable margin, with Olyunin taking silver and Alex Diebold of the USA the bronze.
The making of a miracle
“It’s incredible, a miracle,” said Vaultier of his sudden change in fortune. “This was virtually unthinkable a couple of months ago. It hasn’t sunk in. It feels like I’ve taken off on the last jump and haven’t come down yet.
“I think coming here as an outsider has helped me, because I find it very hard to handle the pressure at big events. There was a lot less pressure on me today and I enjoyed it a lot more. I was finally able to do it. I wasn’t any more stressed than I usually am before a World Cup race and I’ve won lots of World Cups.
“The pressure on me was very positive in fact,” he added. “I executed everything right from the first run, whereas in Vancouver the only thing I ‘executed’ was my status as the favourite. I’ve been myself here and I’ve been able to express myself.
“It was a bit like double or quits for me here, and in the end it was double. To be first at the bottom is just great. I put everything I had into it, but if you’d said to me a week ago that I’d end up being the Olympic champion, I would have laughed in your face.”
Wave of success
Vaultier continued in the same vein, winning his fourth World Cup title in his event in 2016. Speaking after his victory in Sun Valley (USA) that year, he said: “I want to make the most of the things I do right and start looking forward to 2018.”
In making his sixth appearance at the FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships since 2007 in Sierra Nevada (ESP) in March 2017, Vaultier finally won the one major title that had eluded him. First in qualifying and winning every one of his races in the elimination round, he enjoyed what he described as “a perfect day” and won the final by a distance from Spain’s Lucas Eguibar and Australia’s Alex Pullin.
Vaultier enjoyed another day to remember a fortnight later, in the final World Cup race of the winter in Veysonnaz (SUI). Starting out 20 points adrift of Italy’s Omar Visintin in the standings, the Frenchman claimed a win to clinch his fifth crystal globe in dramatic style.
On top again in Pyeongchang
Vaultier experienced another Olympic miracle on his march to a second career gold at PyeongChang 2018. The Frenchman’s hopes looked to be over when he fell in his semi-final. He was not the only one to hit the snow, however, and managed to pick himself up and cross the line third to earn himself a place in the final.
“Someone up there likes me,” he said after claiming the gold. “I had an unlucky break and then I got lucky all of sudden. My coach got hold of me and said: ‘There’s nothing else that can happen to you. Go out there and smash that final run, then no one can say anything to you’. And that’s how it worked out.”
There was to be no photo finish in the final, as Vaultier took every turn, roller and jump in the lead and won by a large margin over Australia’s Jarryd Hughes and Spain’s Regino Hernández. In the process he ensured that he and fellow double gold medallist Seth Wescott remain the only men to have won the Olympic title since the event’s inclusion on the programme at Turin 2006.
“It’s not over yet,” said Vaultier afterwards. “There’s still the FIS crystal globe to go for at the end of the season.” And go for it he did, collecting a sixth World Cup title in 10 years in late March 2018.