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Steve Rushin
February 25, 2002
Armed with an all-access pass, the author (top) discovered the real-life wonderland of the Winter Game
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February 25, 2002

Ticket To Paradise

Armed with an all-access pass, the author (top) discovered the real-life wonderland of the Winter Game

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At the Winter Olympics an all-access pass is called an E credential, and it's rather like the old E ticket at Disneyland, which granted entry to all the best rides. The 2002 Games pass, emblazoned with a black E, is roughly the size of the golden ticket tucked into a Willy Wonka bar. Remember? It allowed the lucky holder to tour the chocolate factory. I have a golden ticket—an E credential at the Olympics—and a week to use it. Its privileges are exactly as Wonka sang: If you want to view paradise/Simply look around and view it/Anything you want to, do it/Want to change the world?/There's nothing to it.

So we are standing, at a private party in a Salt Lake City club called Splash, before a chocolate waterfall. Jim Craig, Marion Jones and Danny Kass—Olympians past and present, summer and winter-marvel at the machine that produces it, which appears to have sprung from Wonka's own mechanical pencil. The confectionary contraption, about the size of the Stanley Cup, issues an endless cascade of liquid chocolate, into which partygoers dip marshmallows and strawberries impaled on skewers. "It's like something you'd see at Caligula's bar mitzvah," says a dumbstruck diner. He's right, of course, and already it's clear: This week with the golden ticket will be unlike any other. So: Make a wish/Count to three/Come with me....

The Winter Olympics, like Willy Wonka's and Walt Disney's kingdoms, belong to the young. So our E ticket takes us first to the halfpipe final in Park City. There, a P.A. announcer introduces the sport's first star, Terry Kidwell, as "the grandfather of snowboarding." He is 38. An emcee asks a 12-year-old in the grandstand if he'd like tickets to tonight's Foo Fighters concert, which will follow the medals ceremony in Salt Lake City. The 12-year-old shouts into the microphone, "That would be sick!"

Six hours later the boy is there, at the Olympic Medals Plaza in Salt Lake City, when the American snowboarders who swept the halfpipe shamble onstage. Kass, hair in his eyes, hands sucked into the sleeves of his jacket, looks like a child dressed against his will for Sunday school. For five minutes the New Jersey native stands stoically in the spotlight with his teammates. Then at 9 p.m. Mountain time, before 20,000 spectators and untold millions watching on television, he dips his head to accept a silver medal, and a magical thing happens: The glint on his chest is matched, unmistakably, by one in his eyes.

Picabo Street can see it from 44 miles away, while watching television near the Snowbasin ski resort. "Some of them are little tough guys who tried to act like it wasn't their childhood dream to win an Olympic medal," says Street of the snow-boarders, "but even the toughest one, the one from New Jersey, got a little tear in his eye for a second. That's what the Olympics are about: making childhood dreams come true."

Evidently so, for the medals podium now mechanically slides from the stage, and in the snowboarders' place stand the Foo Fighters. The band's lead singer is 33-year-old Dave Grohl, the former drummer for Nirvana, the biggest rock and roll band of his generation, and still Grohl professes honor and astonishment to be playing the Olympics. "I want to dedicate this next song to Jim Craig, goalie on the 1980 Olympic hockey team," he says. "When I was a kid, that guy was my hero, man. I swear to God. I talked to him on the phone today, and that was just the coolest thing in the world." Grohl adjusts his guitar and says again, "I swear to God."

Then he plays the first chord of the song My Hero, and the sea of people in front of the stage begins to pogo up and down for warmth. But it apparently doesn't work, because everywhere one looks, goose pimples are in evidence.

They're also in evidence the next morning at Snowbasin, site of the men's and women's downhill courses, two narrow slopes that come together at the finish, a white wishbone cut into the mountainside. The men's course is pitched at 38 degrees. The stairs in your house are pitched at 27. To get a feel for the downhill, simply steepen your staircase by almost half, coat it in ice, increase its length a thousandfold, insert hairpin turns and—this part is crucial—remove the stairs. Then try skiing down it.

On this day the women are traveling at interstate speed, flying 40 yards in the air off Lindh's Launch, farther than some professionals can kick a football on Sunday. Petra Haltmayr of Germany is skiing only nine days after dislocating her right shoulder. Every woman removes her helmet at the finish to reveal perfect teeth and uncanny eloquence. The top American finisher—in 11th place—is baby-faced Jonna Mendes, of Heavenly, Calif., who holds a giant novelty rose in her hand. "I'm only 22," she says, "and I've already had plenty of injuries and surgeries. But it's worth it. Because how could you not want to be out here doing this?"

Picabo Street is only eight years older than Mendes, but they have been dog years. After winning gold at the 1998 Games, she had a horrific crash in which she tore up her right knee and broke her left leg. However, during the last three years she has competed again, mostly in Europe, far from her hometown of Triumph, Idaho. Says Street, "My parents used to wait for a 3 a.m. phone call that said, 'I won again, Dad!' But in the last three years it's been, 'I'm done, and I'm safe.' "

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