Following his dream: Iron River native Nick Baumgartner takes dream to third Olympics this week
Olympics: Nick Baumgartner’s event, men’s snowboard cross, will be held starting Wednesday evening in the U.S., Thursday morning in Korea
IRON RIVER — If you’re Nick Baumgartner, the path to being an Olympic athlete isn’t an easy one, especially this year.
For any resident of the Upper Peninsula, the path to becoming an Olympic athlete isn’t easy either. No matter where you’re from, being an Olympic athlete, well, isn’t easy.
But a small-town resident in the U.P. would seem to have to work just a little bit harder to reach the ultimate goal.
That’s the message the 36-year-old Iron River native, West Iron County High School alumnus, former Northern Michigan University student and now three-time Olympian for Team USA wants to send to the U.P. community.
Baumgartner first got into snowboarding thanks to his older brother Josh and their sibling rivalries.
“Josh kind of headed up the whole snowboard scene in the U.P.,” he said. “Looking up to him I followed in his footsteps. As the youngest, of course, I always wanted to beat my older brother in sports. That combined with my competitive drive got me to where I’m at today.”
Baumgartner is representing the U.S. as well as the U.P. for the third straight time in snowboard cross at the Winter Olympics right now in PyeongChang, South Korea. He also competed at the Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014.
Baumgartner said being a small-town kid and coming home to share the experience with family and friends is what makes his snowboarding career so fun.
“The most fun thing about it is the fact that I can come home to our community in the U.P. and share that experience with the people here,” he said. “Just by somebody knowing or having some sort of connection to me completely changes their experience about the Olympics.
“They know someone who competes and will be invested in it, and to know I do that for them is unbelievable.”
Baumgartner will bring those stories home once again, and he feels fortunate to be able to do that since this year’s path to PyeongChang was in no way smooth sailing.
On his birthday in December, during the third round of snowboard cross Olympic qualifying in Austria, Baumgartner took a hard crash and sustained several injuries. Those included compression fractures to the T11 and T12 vertebrae, a broken rib and bruised lungs. Baumgartner had to be air-lifted from the slopes to a hospital for treatment.
In that very moment lying on the course, Baumgartner thought his third Olympic dream was in shambles.
“When it first happened, I was in so much pain when they were loading me onto the cart,” he said. “I looked over at the doctor and said ‘I’m in trouble.’ I thought my season and career was over.
“The emotion was unbelievable. Even going into the next race, I thought I was done for sure.”
But he wasn’t done. While he missed the fourth round of Olympic qualifying, he recovered in time for one final chance at a qualifying event in Turkey. He advanced from his heat and finished fourth in the final on Jan. 20.
Three days later, he got the call that kept the dream alive. Baumgartner would represent Team USA in PyeongChang.
What a difference one month makes, and for Baumgartner, it’s still surreal.
“For me to come one month after my injuries and make it to the finals and lock my spot for the Olympics was unbelievable,” he said.
For Baumgartner, the Olympic experience of competing and marching at the opening ceremonies never gets tiring.
“The first time I ever walked into the stadium for the opening ceremony in Vancouver, it completely changed me as a person,” he said. “It made me pretty emotional. To walk out into the arena wearing red, white and blue with the world watching you, it’s pretty crazy for a small-town Yooper boy.”
With all of the glamour and glory of being an Olympic athlete comes some sacrifices. Athletes take on heavy travel and training schedules, time away from family and more.
“Everyday life is a little bit of a struggle,” Baumgartner said. “Financially and organizationally, it takes a toll. It’s difficult to carry a job when I’m leaving to snowboard all of the time. I’m not a rich man. I struggle every day like everyone else. Paycheck to paycheck. I get one paycheck, though, and have to make it last the entire season.
“I’m fortunate with what I get to do, though. I’ve been to over 20 countries doing this. I’ll deal with growing up in a few years so I can enjoy the time I have now. It gets difficult sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I have no regrets.”
A big factor in Baumgartner’s drive to succeed is his 13-year-old son Landon. Being a single father, he shares a special relationship with his son, which was evident during this video phone interview.
“Before I had him, you just kind of do things for yourself and that’s a selfish way to do anything,” he said. “When I had a son, he gave me more reasons to do everything and be successful.
“I have to provide for him, I have to make him proud of me, and I have to be one of the coolest things he’s ever seen. Without him I don’t know if I’d be as far as I am or would do as much as I have.”
Landon, along with Baumgartner’s mother, is joining him in PyeongChang to cheer him on. Baumgartner claims every race Landon attends, he does well in.
“The first race he came to see (me), I won at X-Games 12 days after I broke my collarbone,” he said. “because nobody was going to beat me to the bottom where my son was waiting.”
A typical day of training for Baumgartner starts with an early-morning gym session. When training at home, he likes to go mountain biking, jogging, swimming and paddle boarding. He takes his “training partner” with him, a black lab named Oakley. When on the road, Baumgartner wakes up early for a stretch session, warms up on the mountain, goes through physical therapy, another stretch session and then recuperates.
Baumgartner still enjoys his time on the mountains as much as he did when he was younger.
“People often ask me how I have the drive, fire and motivation to keep going,” he said. “The big thing is that I have fun and smile a lot. Having fun makes it fun for me. I don’t try to get stressed out. When things go wrong, it keeps me motivated. If I’m not enjoying it, why would I put the effort in?”
Baumgartner still hits the slopes in the U.P. as well, mainly at Ski Brule in Iron River or Mount Bohemia in Keweenaw County for powder days.
There’s a reason Baumgartner resides in the U.P. to this day, and it’s due to the many recreational opportunities at his disposal outside of snowboarding.
“Anything outdoors that can give me a rush is a hobby of mine,” he said. “I’m chasing a rush every day. Enjoying the beauty of the U.P. is one of my favorite things to do. I think Lake Superior is the coolest place on earth. Anything I can do in the outdoors here I enjoy.”
And while Baumgartner has clearly found a vast amount of snowboarding success from the X-Games to the Olympics, he wants every small-town people to know they can achieve greatness as well if they put in the effort.
“It’s tricky because we’re from a small town, we have the mindset that we’re limited,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Work as hard as you can at the opportunity. Any ounce of dedication put in, more times than not you’ll get a chance. Half-(butt) it and you won’t get another. If you work a little harder and you’re willing to put in the effort, you can do anything.”
Despite four medals throughout his career, gold and silver at the X-Games and two bronzes at the Snowboard Cross World Championships, Baumgartner is still awaiting the coveted Olympic hardware.
Asked if he would bring gold back to the U.P., Baumgartner said that’s the mentality and referred back to his son one more time.
“That’s the plan,” he said. “If I go there thinking I can’t, then I won’t. I’ve been at this for a long time. I know this course and they always say the third time is a charm. And remember, who’s beating me to my son waiting at the bottom? Nobody.”
Baumgartner is selling T-shirts on his website at NickBaumgartner.com or at Yooper Shirts in Marquette. They are $15 and proceeds benefit Baumgartner on his journey to PyeongChang, as well as extra funds that will help him get to schools around the U.P. to speak to students.
Baumgartner departed for PyeongChang on Sunday, then was to begin competition on Thursday in the men’s snowboard cross final, beginning at 9:45 a.m. Korea time, which will be at 8 p.m. EST Wednesday on NBC.
Actual competition is set for 11 a.m. through 2:45 p.m. Korea time on Thursday, or 9 p.m. EST Wednesday to 12:45 a.m. EST Thursday.
Email Ryan Spitza at email@example.com.