Archdeacon: For Vito, Olympics about representing family, heritage this time

“This is about more than just an Olympic medal” Linzee Vito said. “This is bigger than snowboarding.”

She was talking about the efforts of her younger brother – Olympic snowboarder Louie Vito – who is competing in the halfpipe prelims at the Beijing Olympic Games on Wednesday morning in China.

That means it would just before midnight Tuesday back in Bellefontaine, Vito’s hometown, where many people would be watching the NBC coverage, not just because he’s a favorite son on the big stage, but because he’s a shining example of someone who has never forgotten where he came from.

Linzee planned to watch from Breckenridge, Colo., where she runs a performance center for athletes.

Her parents, Lou and Judy, had traveled Tuesday morning from Bellefontaine to Salt Lake City, where Toyota, Louie’s sponsor, was hosting a watch party for Olympic families who are not permitted to attend the Beijing Games because of China’s strict COVID regulations.

Other Vito family members would be watching in Rome, New York, where Lou grew up and which has a large Italian-American presence.

And folks would be following in various regions of central and southern Italy, where Louie is becoming as revered as he is in Bellefontaine and at nearby Mad River Mountain resort, the place where he first learned he could be a star on the snow and ice.

Vito represented the United States at the Vancouver Olympic Games in 2010 and finished fifth in the halfpipe.

This time – instead of wearing the red, white and blue – his uniform is green, white and red.

He’s competing for Italy, which means he’s representing his family and his heritage.

“First and foremost, being able to go to the Olympics for the U.S, was always my dream,” he said the other day from Beijing on the “In the Village” podcast hosted by Olympic swimmer Elizabeth Beisel.

“But this is something different. It’s something very personal and close to my heart and means a lot to me.”

Several athletes at these Games grew up in the U.S. and, because there are only so many spots on the American team – there are just four snowboard berths – or it’s a matter of connecting with their roots, they are competing for another nation.

Freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy is representing Britain after taking part in two Olympic Games with the US..

And teenage freestyle skiing sensation Eileen Gu, who grew up in San Francisco, just won gold for China.

Her story may be better known than Vito’s, but, in many ways, his story is even more wondrous.

He’s beaten the odds in so many different ways.

He’s 33, old in a sport where many competitors (except 35-year-old Shaun White) are far younger and now pressing to do bolder and riskier tricks.

It’s been 12 years since he was on the Olympic stage and in that time he has had to overcome numerous injuries, including a broken back he suffered at the last Olympic Trials before the 2018 Pyeongchang Games in South Korea.

To do so, he’s drawn on what he told Beisel is the “blue-collar chip” he’s had on his shoulder his entire career.

“I’ve been grinding year in and year out, competing with blown discs, a broken back, a torn meniscus, all those things,” he said.

To join the Italian team – an effort which he is financing himself and not taking any money from the Italian national team – he has gone through the arduous task of obtaining a dual citizenship.

He’s taking lessons to learn to speak Italian.

And he’s done all this at a time when there are strict COVID protocols in place, here and in Italy – which was hit hard by the pandemic —and especially Beijing, where athletes exist in a semi-bubble and, he said, are tested for the virus every day.

It’s been an admirable, often yeoman’s effort and yet there have been some short-sighted people on social media who have taken issue, sometimes unkindly, because he’s competing for Italy.

“Some of those people don’t understand,” Linzee said quietly. “That’s why it’s sometimes frustrating. You have people who write opinions and say cruel things.”

But the people who really know Louie Vito and his motivations – fellow U.S, Olympians, people at Mad River Mountain and even Father Shawn Landenwitch, who spent three years at Alter High School in Kettering and now is the pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Bellefontaine, know better.

Vito has supported the church’s St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry for 17 years.

As Landenwitch put it:

“He’s famous, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He understands he has a responsibility to serve others. I think he’s a great role model for the young people -- really for everyone -- around here.”

Family work ethic

Vito’s paternal grandmother, Angiolina, came from Introdacqua in the Abruzzo region of Italy and landed in Ellis Island.

The family has now found out her husband, Louis Sr., was a stow-away. He died at age 34, leaving her with two kids, including two-year-old Lou. They lived in Rome, New York, and Angiolina had to work hard as an immigrant mother raising two children on her own.

That’s where Lou learned his work ethic, which he passed on to Louie.

Lou came to Ohio State for grad school. He met Judy, who is from Tiffin. He eventually bought a pair of bankrupt radio stations in Bellefontaine, Louie said, and today owns four stations there and in Urbana.

The family – especially Lou and Louie – were drawn to Mad River Mountain and soon Louie was challenging himself. But with a 300-foot vertical and a short snow season, he didn’t have the same opportunities as other kids his age out west or in places like Vermont.

He attended Windells Snowboarding Camp at Mount Hood when he was eight, but in national competitions was finishing in the middle of the pack.

His dad was competing then as well on an older circuit and realized his son had a gift, but needed more opportunity.

While Linzee – who snowboarded and did gymnastics – stayed and graduated from Bellefontaine High, Louie transferred to Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, which had developed other Olympians, and his career took off.

He turned pro in 2006 and after graduation moved to Utah, where he now lives and trains.

He’s put together quite a list of accomplishments, including winning four Grand Prix overall halfpipe championships, twice being the Dew Cup overall halfpipe champion, winning several X Games crowns and, of course, becoming a popular U.S. Olympian.

Since Vancouver, he’s made the podium in 22 of 25 events.

Off the snow, his resume has been just as impressive.

Three months before Vancouver, he appeared on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars and fox-trotted, rhumbaed and jive flowed his way into Week 7 before being eliminated.

He appeared in ESPN the Magazine’s annual Body Issue, which features athletes tastefully posed in the buff to show off the power and grace of the athletic body.

He has served as a broadcaster at the X Games, was named one of the “Top 50 Most Fit Athletes in the World” by Men’s Health and received a Young Hollywood Award entitled “Most Awesome Athlete” in the U.S.

Giving back

Although he has certainly made a name for himself far from home, nothing eclipses what he still does back around Bellefontaine.

Every year – just after the Christmas holidays when he knows local food panties are running low – he puts on the Louie Vito Rail Jam for Charity at Mad River Mountain.

He brings in thousands of dollars of prizes to be given away. Those who take part either pay an admission fee or can donate canned goods for entrance.

The food goes to the St. Vincent de Paul pantry.

Vito said he puts this event on each year to promote snowboarding among area young people and draw the community together and especially to help he food pantry.

Linzee said these are lessons their parents instilled in them:

“They let Louie know he’d been very fortunate growing up, but that it could all disappear. You want to remember where you come from.”

He does and that’s why so many people were celebrating his return to the Olympics.

Linzee, who is nine months pregnant, was set for a low-key watch party. Her husband was out of town so she planned to join a few friends.

“I’ll be recording and cheering and taking pictures of the TV screen,” she said. “I already have on my green, white and red.

“I know a lot of family will be celebrating tonight. They’re all over the moon that Louie is competing for Italy and celebrating our heritage, and especially our grandmother.

“After she died, we found out she had renewed her passport just before the Winter Olympics in Italy (2006 in Turin). Just in case Louie made the team then. She wanted to be there.

“So I can imagine how she’d feel about this now.

“I’ll tell you, I believe in heaven.

“And I think she’ll have one heck of an Olympic party going on up there.”

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