CYPRESS MOUNTAIN, British Columbia -- From the top of the halfpipe on a shockingly clear night, Torah Bright cast her gaze on crowd, searching for her people. They weren't tough to find. Bright, from Cooma, Australia, soon spied a green-and-gold section whose boisterous occupants Thursday included seven bare-chested men -- none of whom came close to matching her fitness level -- whose painted midsections spelled out G-O T-O-R-A-H.
She was preparing for her second and last run of the finals, and was reasonably sure it would be better than her first, since, basically, it couldn't have been worse. Having a go at a switch backside 720 -- the gnarliest trick attempted at this competition -- -- she'd "ducked my head too much," Bright recalled, tumbling down the wall of the pipe. Making matters worse, she biffed on a second trick later in the run. Her score -- 5.9 out of a possible 50 -- seemed a tad generous.
Bright had little time to dwell on that disaster. Having finished the first run in last place, it fell to her to take the first run of the second round -- like the golfer who knocks a putt five feet past the hole and is told, "You're still away."
That's when the aptly named Bright cast her gaze on the Aussie contingent. "They're all having fun," she recalled thinking, "I'm gonna have some fun."
On that defiantly upbeat note, she dropped into the pipe, warmed up with an elegant, soaring backside 360 and then just crushed the switch backside 7 on the second time around. After nailing another three tricks with matchless technical precision, Bright went from worst to first, earning a score of 45 that made her Australia's first gold medal winner of these Games.
Finishing behind Bright, in order, were a pair of Americans: HannahTeter (who won gold in this event in Torino), and KellyClark, who stood atop the podium in Salt Lake City eight years ago. Their silver and bronze, along with the gold and bronze earned the previous night by ShaunWhite and ScottyLago, underscored Team USA's dominance. Americans have won four of the six halfpipe medals in each of the last three Winter Games. One of the most frequently asked questions around the pipe over the last few days has been, Why does the USA own this event?
Clark put it in a nutshell, pointing out that the sport was invented and established in the States, "resorts were open to it earlier, in the '90s, and now more and more of them are committed to making good parks and pipes" -- which is to say, they're committed to turning a profit.
DavidNaylor, who writes for The Globe and Mail, made a spot-on observation during our chat at the venue. One of the reasons other countries are struggling to catch up with the USA, he points out, "is because they're chasing a moving target." They improve, but the Yanks improve more. That dynamic held particularly true in the last year, as the American men -- White in particular -- pioneered double-corked (off-axis) rotations that radically raised the bar in the sport.
Lest partisans start chanting U-S-A, it's only fair to point out that this the subplot of American domination is undermined, to a degree, by the fact that Bright was in a league of her own on Thursday night. Her closest competitor, really, was Aspen's Gretchen Bleiler, who stuck an insanely tough trick called a crippler 720, but was so stunned by that success that she botched her next hit, clipping the lip of the pipe and tumbling out of the medals.
Stylish and solid, Teter's first run earned her 42.4, which held up as the top score throughout the first run, as nervous name riders took turns wiping out.
Clark, in the midst of a strong season, bit it hard on her first run trying to land a frontside 900, a trick with which she has a tortured history. Five hits into her final run in Turin, she had a lesser medal in her pocket -- IF she decided to throttle down on her final maneuver. Determined to defend her gold medal, she attempted a trick rarely seen at the time -- a frontside 900, wouldn't you know -- ended up in the backseat and off the podium. Clark went through the mix zone wearing her goggles rather than let us see her tears.
What trick did she attempt -- and stick -- for the final hit of her bronze-medal-winning run? A frontside 900. While there were people who thought the judges lowballed her -- finished .02 behind Teter -- Clark herself was all smiles. Exchanging a bear hug with AmenTeter, Hannah's brother and agent, Clark proclaimed, "I'm so STOKED." For the second straight Olympics, her eyes were moist.
There was a lot of that going around. That rowdy crew of Aussies did not include Bright's parents, Marion and Peter ... so far as she knew. Torah is getting married in Utah this June. Thinking two trips to the States would be too much, she instructed her parents to stay home during the Games.
"Whatever you want, Torah," they assured her, all the while arranging transportation to Vancouver. After she'd thrown down her gold-medal winning run, but before her opponents had finished trying to top it, Bright took another look at the green and gold mob. She noticed a familiar head of sandy blond hair, recognized her father, and realized her parents had disobeyed her directive. And she burst into tears.
Not that her victory was a huge deal in Australia or anything, but, shortly after the flower ceremony, Torah took a call from Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister, whom she later described as "just lovely." Which is the same adjective Marion used to describe her high-flying daughter:
"We're more proud of the lovely person that she is, than the consummate athlete that she is. She is just a lovely tender heart. We've brought up all our children" -- Torah is the fourth of five -- "with the correct principles, so that they could govern themselves. And she's governed herself beautifully ..."
She may be tender, but Torah Bright is also tougher than your average professional bull rider. She's incurred three concussions since New Years, this after dislocated her jaw in the pipe a week before Christmas. Her therapist had to "readjust her jawbone and all the skull bones," reports Marion.
The elder Brights were nearly busted on the eve of their daughter's contest. They were in a house full of family and friends when Torah dropped by. At one point Torah walked into the room were they hiding, but did not see them, as they had taken refuge in the closet.
So they made it to the venue undiscovered, only to see their daughter record the lowest score in the finals. Before they knew it, it was Torah's turn to ride again. This time, she governed herself beautifully.