Posted: Thursday February 16, 2006 3:30PM; Updated: Thursday February 16, 2006 5:33PM
Throughout the afternoon heats, the comparison no one seemed able to resist was to NASCAR, and the parallels were undeniable: from the Euro-babes who posed with the athletes on a sofa near the finish line to the hair-raising passes to the wipeouts everyone is hoping to see. And just like in auto racing, there was a brouhaha among the pit crew.
After stalking around angrily, Holland filed a protest against his own teammate, implying that Smith had deliberately sabotaged his run.
After tossing a steak in the direction of the media as he strode furiously past the mix zone -- "You guys want a quote? If Jason Smith got his ass in gear, I wouldn't have wrecked!" -- he returned awhile later to finish the job.
"I was right on Smith's tail, I was talking to 'em -- 'Get going, Smith, get going.'" Then Smith slowed. Still incredulous a half hour later, Holland despaired: "He speed-checked going into that jump! It's Olympic game day! I don't know what he's doing."
Describing himself as "pretty pissed," Holland went on to say that he was "mad at [Smith] as a teammate for doing that when he knew I was right on his ass."
Smith calmly defended himself, explaining that he chose to hit the brakes rather than take too much speed into the jump and risk bodily harm. Asked if he thought Holland would calm down, he flashed a nervous smile and said, "Hopefully."
Even after Wescott took his place at the dais for his victorious press conference, reporters could not tear themselves from U.S. SBX coach Peter Foley, who adjudicated the Holland-Smith fracas.
"Nate didn't think Jason was going to slow down that much," said Foley. "Jason did." It was incumbent upon Holland, said the coach, "to watch out, to leave yourself room in that situation."
Finally, people took their seats and listened as Wescott spoke of his disappointment at not being able to make the '98 Olympic team as a halfpiper and his joy upon learning, in February '03, that SBX would be introduced as an Olympic sport. He spoke of how he was inspired "seeing the way the halfpipe guys and girls threw down" earlier in the week; about how he was stressed, after passing Zidek, by the sight of "Rado's shadow" the rest of the way: He won the first SBX Olympic gold by a fraction of a second.
Wescott's heroics and Holland's histrionics deflected attention from one of the day's great stories. Where else but in Bardonecchia do you see a winter version of Rudy right before your eyes? Graham Watanabe, a talented boarder from Sun Valley, Idaho, had worked hard to make the SBX team but washed out, not because he isn't very good (he won a World Cup event last season) but because of what he describes as the "crazy depth" on the U.S. squad. Watanabe was at these games in a role he described as "assistant wax tech" guy, which entails, naturally, "a lot of tuning and waxing, plus any on-hill assistance I could provide."
He lost that job on Tuesday morning, when Jason Hale blew out his knee in a training crash and Foley told Watanabe, basically, "Suit up, kid. You're going in."
After scrambling to find a racing board and borrowing Hale's jersey and a pair of medium-sized pants from the women's team -- Watanabe is 5-foot-6 -- he took some training runs and began to feel his way. Damned if the kid didn't make it into the afternoon's final heats. So what if he didn't get past the first heat? He can tell his kids he was an Olympian.
I'm telling you, this venue is the only place to be.