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Stoked Italiana
Austin Murphy
February 20, 2006
American men and women ruled the halfpipe in Bardonecchia with a dazzling combination of technique, bravado and cool. It was sick
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February 20, 2006

Stoked Italiana

American men and women ruled the halfpipe in Bardonecchia with a dazzling combination of technique, bravado and cool. It was sick

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After the women's halfpipe had ended, and all the European and Asian and Australian riders had dried their tears and brushed the snow off their backsides, Hannah Teter made a silent statement. In the flower ceremony at Bardonecchia on Monday, the gold medal winner stepped onto the stage holding an American flag by the top corners. The wind caught Old Glory, and it looked for a moment as if Teter might take wing. � And why not? In helping lead the U.S. snowboarding team to a preposterously dominant performance in the men's and women's halfpipe events at the Turin Winter Games, the 19-year-old from Belmont, Vt., had soared over her competition, which, frankly, seemed intimidated by all the American women. Not only did Gretchen Bleiler, 24, win silver but also U.S. teammates Kelly Clark, 22, and Elena Hight, 16, placed fourth and sixth, respectively. "We definitely were in the other teams' heads," said halfpipe coach Bud Keene. "When these girls come rolling in like a freight train, it scares the crap out of everybody."

Making it all the more glorious for American shredders was that Teter and Bleiler merely reprised the gold-silver finish of a day earlier by their countrymen Shaun White and Danny Kass. "They have really good conditions, good pipes, good weather [in the U.S.]," said Norwegian rider Kjersti Buass, the women's bronze medalist, in trying to fathom how Team USA had so thoroughly dashed the hopes of many of the world's best. "We've got to go there and practice. They're a little bit ahead of us."

No, Kjersti. The Americans are, as Keene put it, "head and shoulders" above the rest of you. Just as White had proved in the first of his two runs in the men's finals on Sunday, when he strung together the event's most sublime sequence. It wasn't so much the difficulty of his tricks--even for this crowd, they were advanced--as it was the panache with which he pulled them off. While other riders gouged out chunks of the pipe with their landings, the 19-year-old from Carlsbad, Calif., slotted his, kissing the snow upon reentry, popping off the lip of the pipe as if his board were spring-loaded.

That run earned White 46.8 points out of a possible 50. One by one the finest boarders on the planet vainly took their best shots at him. Christophe Schmidt of Germany had a strong run going but bounced off his backside on his final landing, butt-checking himself off the podium. Kass threw down a dazzling run that earned him a 44, which held up for silver. Finland's Markku Koski was the final rider with a shot to unseat White. But Koski's attempt at a cab 1080 turned into a cab 1040, dragging his tail around for the final quarter rotation, and he barely won the bronze.

What the finals lacked in suspense, White made up for with his glorious mane, a titian curtain of tonsorial splendor that is to this teen idol what the red cape was to a certain action hero. Having already won the halfpipe, the Superman of snowboarding--indeed, of all extreme sports, for White also competes, and wins, as a pro skateboarder--found that his final run would be superfluous. Rather than play his trump card, an unheard-of backside 1080, he jump-started his gold medal celebration, substituting for his final four hits a pair of long, graceful slashes, in which a rider surfs the pipe, riding along the edge of the wall to spray spectators with a rooster tail of slush.

In so doing, he brought his brief career full circle.

Shaun White was born in Carlsbad on Sept. 3, 1986. His mother, Cathy, was the daughter of Roller Derby professionals. "We think that's where Shaun got his balance," she says. His father, Roger, worked for the water department in nearby San Clemente and surfed every chance he got. Shaun was named for Shaun Thompson, a hard-charging South African tube rider whom his father admired. One of Roger's great regrets is that he once took young Shaun surfing on a cold day. After that his son found excuses not to join him at the beach. Had the freckled wunderkind devoted his energies to that board sport, Kelly Slater might be walking around with fewer world championships. And snowboarding in the U.S. would not be on the cusp of its next logarithmic leap forward.

In 2002 an estimated 92 million TV viewers in the U.S. watched American riders Ross Powers, Kass and J.J. Thomas sweep the halfpipe at the Salt Lake City Games. ( Clark had won the women's gold a day earlier.) Powers, though highly gifted, was no Shaun White--the Michael Jordan of extreme sports. Powers had not won nine straight events heading into the Olympics, was not a crossover athlete capable of competing with the best skateboarders in the world; did not have, as White does, his own line of snowboarding outerwear. If you are a crotchety old skier who resents the plague of shredders on your slopes, Feb. 12 and Feb. 13 in Bardonecchia were not good days for you. As you read this, White is making the rounds on the network talk shows, using his gold medal as a portkey to the uninitiated. It may be time to extend an olive branch to that baggy-pantsed, begoggled shredder on the chairlift beside you. (Sample icebreaker: "Did you see Gretchen Bleiler in nothing but body paint on that FHM cover?") Because he isn't going away.

And neither is snowboarding as an Olympic sport. Introduced in Nagano in 1998, it has gone from a loopy novelty to a first-week anchor. Part of its popularity is that it is so fluid. Powers, who won gold in 2002 with an epic straight air (estimated at 20 feet above the lip of the pipe) and back-to-back 720s, didn't even make this year's team. If you aspired to the podium, you'd better be able to put together back-to-back 1080s. During qualifying on Sunday, Mathieu Crepel of France tried a 1260 and in a Friday training run was said to have landed a 1440. This escalation has sparked a philosophical debate around the pipe--to the extent that such a thing is possible among young people unable to utter three sentences without using the word stoked. In one camp are Crepel and his ilk, champions of going for maximum rotations, damn the price to be paid in style points. On the other side are the Americans, who believe that spinning for spinning's sake is, well, whack.

The word going around at the bottom of the pipe was that the judges would take a dim view of excessive spinning, which played to the strengths of the Americans, particularly White, a purist steeped in the lore of his sport.

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