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Olympic Dream Takes a U.P. Village

Nick (green bib) racing at the at the 2022 Olympics. (credit U.S. Snowboarding)
Nick (green bib) racing at the at the 2022 Olympics. (credit U.S. Snowboarding)

Nick Baumgartner went to the 2022 Winter Olympics ready to win. It was his fourth Games. He’d never medaled before, but he was feeling prepared and determined to finally bring one home.

In the qualifying round for men’s snowboard cross, Nick had a slow start, but he eventually gained on his competitors and took the lead.

“Nick is running a great race,” snowboard analyst Seth Wescott said on NBC. “This is going to come down to one of these photo finishes.”

But then Nick made a mistake, and it cost him the race. He lost.

Nick was devastated – broke down on national TV.

“I put so much time and effort and then one little mistake, and it’s gone,” Nick told the NBC reporter between tears. “I’m forty years old. I’m running out of chances. … I gotta do something better to end with.”

And then Nick gets some news. He may have a shot at a better ending.

Nick Baumgartner has a new memoir out, “Gold from Iron: A Humble Beginning, Olympic Dreams, and the Power in Getting Back Up.” He wrote it with Jeff Seidel, a sports columnist at the Detroit Free Press.

Producer: Morgan Springer
Host / Editor: Daniel Wanschura
Additional Editing: Peter Payette, Michael Livingston, Ellie Katz
Music: “Origine” by Thibaut Garnier, “Energetic Rock” & “Energetic Sport Indie Rock” by AudioCoffee Band, “F.O.” & “Fallin’” by Jahzzar, “Picture it All (Instrumental” by Lorenzo’s Music, “Crooked Townie” by HoliznaCCO, “Flash” by Crowander, and “Rock Energy” by Day Night Morning.
Sound: Applause Cheer, Kyles

DAN WANSCHURA, HOST: Nick Baumgartner is racing down the course. He’s snowboarding around curves. Over jumps. Trying to gain on his competitors.

(sound from 2022 Olympic snowboarding competition)

It’s the Winter Olympics in Beijing. 2022. Nick’s from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Lived there his whole life. This is his fourth Olympics. And he’s never medaled before. This may be his last shot.


“Nick Baumgartner is the oldest snowboarder to ever make the Olympics.” “40-year-old Olympian, the oldest snowboarder.”
“Two of the oldest competitors here.”
“And the oldest Olympian at these games.”

WANSCHURA: And Nick says people who’d believed in him are starting to doubt him.

NICK BAUMGARTNER: They're like, you're really going to try to make the Olympics at 40. … And I'm like, you guys, like, I'm not trying to just make the Olympics. I'm trying to go there and come back with a medal.

WANSCHURA: He says that medal is the one thing that’s missing.

(sounds from snowboarding competition)

So Nick’s in the quarterfinals for men’s snowboard cross. This race will determine if he moves on.

(sounds from snowboarding competition)

And about 42 seconds into the race, Nick goes over this jump and takes the lead. Nick holds his lead. Around turn one, turn two, then a straightaway into jump, and then he makes a mistake. He takes a roller too fast and lands flat, losing speed and falling behind.

NBC SPORTS: It’s Nick Baumgartner running out of real estate. Circling the drain as we come down. Baumgartner will not make it through.

WANSCHURA: Nick finishes third, which means he won’t advance. And he won’t have a shot at his first Olympic medal. Understandably, Nick is devastated, and he can’t keep it in. He’s crying, and now he’s gotta talk to NBC reporter Hailey Hunter.

NBC SPORTS HAILEY HUNTER: Nick, I know this wasn’t the outcome you were hoping for. You worked so hard in this offseason. You had a great run out there. Just fell short in the end of the race. What’s going through your mind right now?

BAUMGARTNER: Heartbreak. 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 forty years old. I’m running out of chances. … I gotta do something better to end with.

WANSCHURA: And then Nick learns he might have a shot at a better ending.

This is Points North, a podcast about the land, water and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura. Producer Morgan Springer picks up the story right after this.

(sponsor message)

The Baumgartner brothers. Nick is third from the left. (courtesy: Nick Baumgartner)
The Baumgartner brothers. Nick is third from the left. (courtesy: Nick Baumgartner)

MORGAN SPRINGER, BYLINE: There were a bunch of times Nick Baumgartner could have quit snowboarding. To understand why he didn’t, you gotta know about his three older brothers.

BAUMGARTNER: For me it was a big thing about just trying to gain acceptance from my older brothers and wanting them to allow me to hang out with them and their friends. In order to do that, I was often the guinea pig, and I had to- I had to earn that right. Be the first one to go down this zip line, be the first one to do this.

SPRINGER: So things were pretty wild at his childhood home in Iron River, Michigan. It’s a small town in the U.P. near the Wisconsin border. There was playful wrestling and drag-out fighting. Lots of toughness and risk taking.

Nick’s dad said his boys had “more guts than brains. So “if it has a motor, it’s not allowed.” No snowmobiles or four wheelers. Nothing like that.

BAUMGARTNER: We could get in enough trouble on a pedal bike building jumps and hurting ourselves.

SPRINGER: Nick says this environment with his brothers was motivating.

BAUMGARTNER: I tried to beat them in every single sport that I did. … And I always pushed it to a limit. If I didn't beat them, I didn't accept that.

SPRINGER: Nick brought that drive to snowboard competitions – first local ones, then national ones. And he gets hooked on his main event called snowboard cross.

(sound of snowboard cross race)

Snowboard cross is about speed – a race to the finish.

BAUMGARTNER: We're going over the jumps and, … ripping through the rhythm sections and diving into corners.

(sound of snowboard cross race)

For two years I had gone and I had done the national championships. So I would do one big race a year, and I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Well, if I really want to be a professional snowboarder, I'm going to have to take this a little more serious. I can't just do one race a year, and, hopefully, I'm going to get noticed.’ So I made this plan–

SPRINGER: The plan was he’s gonna go to Colorado and enter a bunch of races and try to qualify for X Games.

BAUMGARTNER: And back then we didn't have an Olympics for snowboard cross. That was the Olympics for snowboard cross.

SPRINGER: But two weeks before he’s supposed to leave...

BAUMGARTNER: I found out that I was going to be a dad. And it kinda, it changed everything at the beginning. It was like, ‘Well, what's going to happen now? Here goes my dream.’ … I thought it was gone.

Nick Baumgartner, his son Landon, and dog Oakley. (courtesy: Nick Baumgartner)
Nick Baumgartner, his son Landon, and dog Oakley. (courtesy: Nick Baumgartner)

SPRINGER: It’s 2003. Nick’s 21. He doesn’t have much money. And now he’s gonna have a kid to provide for.

BAUMGARTNER: And luckily my son's mother was like, ‘There's no way I'm stopping you from going and being the reason you didn't give it a shot.’

SPRINGER: And so Nick goes out West.

BAUMGARTNER: I went to three races. I ended up winning two of them, and immediately got invited to the X Games, which started this journey.

SPRINGER: Nick goes to his first X Games in 2005. He’s 23. And Nick does okay for a first timer. He says he gets ninth place. His snowboarding career is taking off, but now he’s broke. He needs money to keep traveling and competing. And to help take care of his son. He’s gotta go back to Iron River and get a job.

BAUMGARTNER: I had an old babysitter’s husband call up and said to my parents, ‘Like, you have any kids that want to get a job and want to get a job where you can get paid 21 bucks an hour?’ … I was like, ‘Well, that's awesome. Absolutely. That's exactly what I want.’

SPRINGER: Nick takes the job, pouring concrete mostly. He’s three days into this new construction work.

BAUMGARTNER: And I get a call from the head coach of the U. S. Snowboard team saying, ‘We want you to come to camp, and you got a shot to make the team, … And I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is crazy.’ I go into the office, and I tell these guys, ‘Hey, you guys, I got a problem.’ … And they’re like, ‘What’s up?’

SPRINGER: Nick tells them the story...

BAUMGARTNER: And they're like, ‘Well, what's the problem?’ I said, ‘Well, the problem is I just started working for you guys. And I have no money.’ And they're like, ‘Well, let's think about this.’ And they’re like–

SPRINGER: They say, look, we’re going to give you the money up front – just over $1,000, and you can go to training. Then when you’re back at work, we’ll take a bit out of each paycheck till you’ve reimbursed us.

Nick Baumgartner working on a concrete job. (courtesy: Nick Baumgartner)
Nick Baumgartner working on a concrete job. (courtesy: Nick Baumgartner)

BAUMGARTNER: To have someone do that, not only to give you the opportunity and to give you the money, but it just showed that people were invested in this and people believed in what I was trying to do. And that, man, it meant so much to me, and it sent me off to that camp just ready to go there and do the best that I could because ... I need to make sure that I don't let these people down.

SPRINGER: When you make the U. S. snowboarding team, what's the status of your ego at this point?

BAUMGARTNER: Well, I'm riding high. It's like, ‘This is what I wanted, and it … happened after taking this serious for one year.’ … It didn't matter that I was from a 400-foot ski hill in the Upper Peninsula. It didn't matter that I didn't have a coach. … I deserved my opportunity, and I was going to make the best of it.

SPRINGER: Nick’s on the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team for the 2005-2006 season. He’s getting advice on how to take care of his equipment. And for the first time ever he’s getting some coaching.

BAUMGARTNER: All these things that just were missing are now coming in. And I'm adding that to my work ethic and just great things are starting to happen.

SPRINGER: And then the season ends. and Nick gets cut from the team.

BAUMGARTNER: Just the worst. I mean, this was my first thing. Everyone was so excited hearing that I made the U.S. snowboard team. And now I have to tell them all that, ‘Hey, you know, this guy that was doing so good, he just got kicked off his first team ever.’

SPRINGER: Nick mostly blames himself. He says maybe he got a bit lazy and complacent. Didn’t give it his all. And now he’s lost a lot. He’s lost a chance at funding, A chance at more coaching, and a chance at the World Cup that year. But it was motivating, he’s competitive, and he says there was no way he was giving up.

So Nick works more construction and raises money from local businesses so he can enter more competitions. And he starts winning. He says it felt like a second chance. Then about a year later, he makes it back onto the U.S. Snowboard team.

(snowboard competition sounds)

He’s snowboarding in the winter and making money in the summer working construction, pouring more concrete.

(snowboard competition sounds)

And then his big moment comes. The 2011 X Games. Nick’s 29. It’s about two weeks before the competition. And Nick’s in Colorado training.

BAUMGARTNER: And on the second day of training, I'm going down the hill, and there's a double into a corner, and I overshoot this double. I land right in the corner, end up falling down, and there's a fence there to catch you if you fall off course. Rather than catch me, it catapulted me up the fence, and I shot … probably like 8, 10 feet in the air, and I came down and crashed on my shoulder. Ended up breaking my collarbone. Now, what do I do? So I ended up calling our team doctor … And I said, ‘X Games are next week. My kid's coming. He's six years old. He's coming to watch me for the first time.’ I said, ‘Dr. Hackett, I need to race in this race.’

SPRINGER: The doctor does surgery. Puts 15 screws and a plate in his shoulder to hold it all together. And he says to Nick, you can race, but there’s one thing you cannot do, which is fall. Nearly impossible.

BAUMGARTNER: My coaches tried to talk me out of racing, and they're like, ‘Nick, there's no way you're going to do the training, the qualifying, and all the heats without falling. It just doesn't happen in this sport.’ And I said, ‘Well, I'm going to try.’

2011 X GAMES ANNOUNCER: And watch Hill sneak to the inside of Baumgartner.

BAUMGARTNER: And honestly, that's the first time I can ever remember not falling through that whole process.

2011 X GAMES ANNOUNCER: But Baum the cagey veteran taking it back right before the finish line. Huge flight there off the money border. And on to his first X Games gold medal. Look at that crowd.


SPRINGER: Nick Baumgartner had gotten gold in one of the biggest snowboard cross races with a broken collarbone.

Nick competes in three Olympics – in Vancouver, Sochi and Peongchang. But he never medals. After each time, he’s saying, I’ll get it next time.

BAUMGARTNER: ‘Next time I'll come back in four years and get my metal 2018.’ I take fourth, which leaves me hungrier than ever. ‘I'm going to come back in four years. I'm going to get that medal.’

SPRINGER: So now it’s 2022.

2022 OLYMPICS OPENING CEREMONY: The representatives for the United States of America enter for the Beijing games.

SPRINGER: The Beijing Winter Olympics. And Nick’s 40 years old. He’s racing against kids his son’s age. And we know what happens, Nick doesn’t get that medal. He loses in a qualifying race. And gives that emotional interview.

BAUMGARTNER: I’m running out of chances. I have so much support back home, and I feel like I let them down. This one stings. This one hurts.

NBC SPORTS HAILEY HUNTER: It’s been really fun to watch you throughout the years, Nick. Do you think we’ll see you in the future? I know you probably need to process. What are your thoughts on that?

BAUMGARTNER: I aint stopping on this. I gotta do something better to end with. Oh, man. I just feel bad.

SPRINGER: Nick finishes up the interview.

BAUMGARNTER: And then I'm like, ‘Is there going to be a next time?’ Like, ‘I'm 40 years old.’ There's got to be some reality at some point. Your body's going to step in and say, ‘You know what, we're done. We can't compete with these kids.’ And so I'm starting to have those kinds of thoughts in my head.

SPRINGER: And then one of his teammates comes up to him and says, “You’re not done.”

“What?” At first Nick didn’t know what he was talking about.

At the 2022 Olympics, they were debuting the mixed team snowboard cross event. That meant one guy races, then a woman races, and they combine the two times from both races for the winning team.

And Nick’s told he’s on the team.

BAUMGARTNER: ‘And not only are you going to be in, but you're teaming up with Lindsey Jacobellis, the best snowboard cross racer of all time. And you still got a chance.’

NBC SPORTS SBX MIXED TEAM: Nick Baumgartner, four time Olympian in search of his first Olympic medal.

SPRINGER: Two days later, Nick shoots out of the gate in the team event.

NBC SPORTS SBX MIXED TEAM: Here we go the start through the Wu Tang section. … Baumgartner for the USA’s moved into the number two spot.

SPRINGER: Canada is in the lead … and then…

NBC SPORTS SBX MIXED TEAM: Look at Baumgartner trying to make the pass. He’s going to get in front.

SPRINGER: He’s got the lead. And he holds it through to the finish.

NBC SPORTS SBX MIXED TEAM: Baumgartner gonna cross first in the lead.

SPRINGER: Winning that heat.

So they’re half way through. Nick’s given his team a very slight advantage – a fraction of a second lead. Now, Lindsay Jacobellis has got to hold onto that lead to take home gold.

NBC SPORTS SBX MIXED TEAM: Lindsay Jacobellis fresh off the gold medal the other day. Five-time Olympian, Team USA in green. … We are racing. Here we go.

BAUMGARTNER: And I'm watching it and she makes a little bobble in the start and cycles back to third place.


(SBX mixed race sounds)

BAUMGARTNER: As soon as she cycled back to third, I couldn't help but think in my head, ‘We just won the Olympics.’


BAUMGARTNER: Absolutely, because … there's one thing you don't want. Someone that experienced and that good, you do not want them hunting you.

(SBX mixed race sounds)

BAUMGARTNER: And I knew she was going to be able to draft the girl that was in second.

BAUMGARTNER IN HEARTBREAK HEALED VIDEO: Get in that draft! Get in that draft!

NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCERS: Lindsay making a pass here for the number two spot. She secures the number two spot, but for how long? Oh, and yellow and blue go down.


SPRINGER: Off a jump, the snowboarders in third and fourth wipe out.


SPRINGER: Which leaves Italy in the lead, and Lindsay Jacobellis right behind her.

NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCERS: Both Gold medalists in the past two Olympics, putting the pressure on one another. These women are such incredible racers.

BAUMGARTNER IN HEARTBREAK HEALED VIDEO: Yes, you got her now! Use that experience, girl. Come on!

SPRINGER: They’re going around a curve when Lindsay makes her move.

NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCERS: Jacobellis getting around. So now Jacobellis in the lead. Mayoli in the number two spot. Got to keep it together toward the end.


SPRINGER: Lindsay holds a narrow lead.


SPRINGER: And they win.

NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCERS: She’s going to take the gold.

SPRINGER: Nick runs over to Lindsay. Gives her a big hug, unfastens her bindings. And then they wrap themselves in the American flag.


Lindsey Jacobellis and Nick Baumgartner celebrate their gold medal in the 2022 Winter Olympics. (credit: U.S. Snowboarding)

SPRINGER: Finally, in his fourth Olympics, Nick Baumgartner got that medal. It took some help along the way from people who believed in him – from his son’s mom to the construction company to his family and tons of people in the U.P. And, finally, some help from Lindsay Jacobellis.

(Iron River homecoming parade)

When Nick comes back to Iron River, his hometown fans are ready. They line the streets for a parade. First comes the police escort, then the big trucks. The logging tractor. And Nick, walking with his dog, Oakley

PARADE ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentleman, your hometown Olympic gold medalist Nick Baumgartner.

SPRINGER: Nick finally brings an Olympic gold medal to his U.P. supporters.

(Iron River homecoming parade)

Nick’s 42 now. But he says that doesn’t mean he’s done. He’ll keep racing as long as it’s still fun, and he can compete. So you might see him in 2026 at the Olympics in Italy.

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Morgan Springer is a contributing editor and producer at Interlochen Public Radio. She previously worked for the New England News Collaborative as the host/producer of NEXT, the weekly show which aired on six public radio station in the region.