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.