Monday, February 13, 2006
Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler took an unusual path to the Turin Games.
They skipped the X-Games -- the premier showcase of the world's greatest snowboarding for nearly a decade -- so they could rest and prepare for the Olympics. Such a move would have been unheard of eight years ago, but it paid off handsomely Monday: Teter won a gold, and Bleiler won a silver in the halfpipe competition.
"The X-Games is an amazing competition and has helped snowboarding enormously," Bleil-er said after winning her first Olympic medal. "The Olympics is the biggest event, period."
Snowboarding's move from fringe lifestyle sport to mainstream began to take off in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Although many top snowboarders shunned the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, American men swept the halfpipe medals in Salt Lake four years later -- the first time the United States had done that in any winter sport in 46 years.
The dominance has continued this year. On Sunday, men's snowboarding superstar Shaun White sobbed in his parents' embrace after winning halfpipe gold in front of more than 11,000 raucous spectators, and the women came tantalizingly close to sweeping the event a day later.
Kelly Clark, who came to the Olympics after winning the X-Games halfpipe, had the best performance of these Olympics going -- until she botched the landing of a challenging 900-degree spin on her final jump at the bottom of the halfpipe. That left her in fourth place by less than a point behind Norwegian Kjerstie Buaas.
Despite already having felt the thrill of winning an Olympic gold in 2002, Clark was bothered enough by her finish here that she refused to take her goggles off for her initial post-event interviews, though her tinted lenses could not totally obscure the tears behind them.
"It's definitely emotional right now. It's hard to pull it together, but I'm doing good," Clark said. "I'm blessed to have gone to the Olympics two times, and I rode my best each time."
The results prove what snowboarding coach Bud Keene said in the months leading up to the games -- that the United States is primed to pull away from its international com-petition, even as the popularity of snowboarding increases around the world.
"We definitely get in other teams' heads," Keene said. "When we come into a halfpipe competition, we're rolling in like a freight train. It's head and shoulders above the rest of the competitors."
The results spoke for themselves during the two days of Olympic halfpipe events.
White finished first, Danny Kass was second, and Mason Aguirre was fourth, while the women were even more dominant. Elena Hight, with the worst score of the four American women, still finished sixth overall out of 34 competitors.