White, Kass smoke 'em
February 13, 2006
BY GREG COUCH Staff Reporter
TURIN, Italy -- While the established American stars were losing or dropping out of the Olympics on Sunday, the Flying Tomato and the X Games dudes tried to save the day.
Orange-haired snowboarder Shaun White won the gold medal in the halfpipe, and U.S. teammate Danny Kass won silver.
"I'm fighting back the tears,'' White said. "I can't explain it.
"[Kass] has been up here before [at the Salt Lake Olympics]. My whole family is here, and I'm so overwhelmed. This is a whole new thing for me.''
If the United States isn't dominant in most Winter Olympics sports, it is in the halfpipe. At Salt Lake, the Americans won gold, silver and bronze. Finland's Markuu Koski won the bronze Sunday to stop another U.S. sweep.
"The U.S. has so many good snowboarders,'' White said. "Hopefully, we will be back next time.''
The snowboarders were a bright spot on a terrible day for the United States that saw skiers Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves and short-track speedskater Apolo Ohno fail to win medals while figure skater Michelle Kwan dropped out with a groin injury.
White and Kass draped the U.S. flag around each other afterward.
White is a champion skateboarder, having won the silver in halfpipe skateboarding in the XGames. He also won gold in snowboarding, making him the only athlete to win medals in the Summer and Winter X Games.
The 19-year-old from San Diego played soccer as a kid, but changed sports after feeling too much pressure from soccer moms. He got his nickname for obvious reasons, but the hair -- which stuck out through a Stars-and-Stripes bandana -- isn't the only reason he stands out.
The halfpipe has a distinct modern feel, with blaring music turning the event into a party atmosphere. White competed to AC/DC's "Back in Black.''
On his first jump, he flew 25 feet over the edge of the pipe. He followed that with consecutive 1,080-degree jumps -- three times around in the air -- while grabbing his board for style points. Judges awarded him with 46.8 points to Kass' 44. Koski had 41.5.
Kass, who won silver in Salt Lake, hardly seemed disappointed not to improve on that this time.
"The competition couldn't be any better,'' he said. "The rides were real good.''
Will he be back for the 2010 Games in Vancouver?
"I am thinking of settling down now,'' he said. "I might visit Disneyland. The next Olympics are too far away for me to think about them.''
No pipe dream: Bleiler wins silver
U.S. women dominate competition
By Eddie Pells
The Associated Press
February 14, 2006
BARDONECCHIA, Italy - When it comes to snowboarding, the Olympics are America's halfpipe, and the rest of the world is just riding it.
That point was driven home again Monday, when Americans Hannah Teter won gold and Gretchen Bleiler of Aspen won silver, adding more hardware to the two medals the U.S. men won the day before.
"USA. Representing," Bleiler said. "We're doing a good job. That's about all I can say."
Were it not for Norway's Kjersti Buaas throwing the run of her life, the Americans would have earned the sweep they almost had when Shaun White, Danny Kass and Mason Aguirre finished 1-2-4.
But Buass' run was worth the bronze, and when Kelly Clark, the 2002 Olympic champion, slipped after her final jump - a tough, 900-degree spin - in an attempt to make the medal stand, she wound up 0.9 points short of third.
"All of Europe is depending on me," Buaas said before taking off for her final run. "I got speed and tried to go big because they have so many tricks and I don't."
Indeed, at times, it really does seem unfair - Americans dominating a sport born and raised in their country and constantly refined there, too.
The move from fringe lifestyle sport to mainstream really took off in 2002, when the American men swept the halfpipe medals at Salt Lake City, the first time the United States had done that in any winter sport in 46 years. That brought about a whole new wave of shredders - snowboarding's classic catch-all metaphor for powering through powder and tearing up halfpipes.
"I remember going to get my hair done a few weeks after the U.S. sweep," Bleiler said. "The 60-year-old women in the salon were in there talking about snowboarding. It's not a cutthroat sport at all. We're all cheering each other on. Together, we're progressing the sport."
When Clark, Bleiler and Teter finished 1-2-3 in qualifying, it became clear the sweep would be America's to lose. Clark flew higher than anyone off the halfpipe, while Bleiler's landings were smoother and Teter's tricks were more tweaked out than anyone's.
Riding with the cords from her iPod dangling about, Teter scored a 44.6 on her first run to take the lead, an advantage that none of the other 11 riders could match.
It made her second trip, soaring through the pipe and into the sunshine of the Italian Alps, a victory lap - just like White's the day before. After bouncing up and down and jiggling her legs at the top, she raised her hands, then scored a 46.4 on the strength of a frontside 540 followed by a frontside 900.
"I just kind of felt the same standing up there," Teter said. "It's like, 'Here we go again, another run on the pipe - but at the Olympics.' I just felt super-positive."
The story of the top two finishers could easily be labeled "Beauty and the Geek." Bleiler is no stranger to sexy photo shoots and could probably find a career in modeling when the snowboarding is over. But cocky she is not.
Her motivation for these Olympics came from the heartbreak of 2002, when she tied for the final spot on the Olympic team but lost out on the third tiebreaker. It made her journey to this point, and the success she finally enjoyed, a nerve-racking ride with a sweet conclusion.
"I get so nervous, and especially for this event," Bleiler said. "But that's what happens when you work for a goal your entire life."
To help calm herself a half hour before the finals began, Bleiler took a few freeride turns alongside Teter. The two decided to take a lift to the top of the mountain only to discover it was closed.
"But we saw a rope, and ... sorry, but we cut it and found some powder," Bleiler said.
"We were like, 'Yeah. This is what snowboarding is all about.'"
The move seemed to calm down the 24-year-old Bleiler, who appeared to be having nothing but fun as she smiled throughout both of her runs. She later said her actions were a convincing mask for her nerves.
"I must be a good actress, because I was a mess today," she said. "I've been screaming uncontrollably for the last three days. I was telling my coach, 'I don't want to care this much.'"
But Bleiler and Teter cared about a successful trip to the Olympics so much that they both pulled out of the Winter X Games in Aspen at the last minute in the last week of January to rest up and be healthy for the Games.
Bleiler, the halfpipe champion at the 2005 Winter X Games, lives across the street from the X Games halfpipe at Buttermilk. Clark went on to take the 2006 X Games gold.
Bleiler said pulling out was a tough decision - but one that obviously paid off.
"The X Games has helped snowboarding enormously and gotten us to where we are today," she said. "The Olympics is definitely trying to tap into what the X Games have. The X Games is the biggest even in snowboarding. I had every intention of competing, but I had to listen to my body. Medaling at the Olympics has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl."
Aspen Times Olympics Correspondent Shauna Farnell contributed to this report.