Thursday February 13th, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- A night after Shaun White laid an egg and no Americans reached the podium in the men’s snowboarding halfpipe, the women restored the luster to American snowboarding.

Coming to the rescue were Kelly Clark and Kaitlyn Farrington. Clark was expected to win gold, but settled for bronze. Farrington was expected to watch these Olympic Games from her home in Salt Lake City, but she squeaked her way onto the squad with a win in the final Olympic qualifier, in mid-January. The 24-year-old former barrel racer -- she grew up on a ranch in Idaho -- came out of nowhere Wednesday night to snatch the halfpipe gold medal.

While many of her teammates were vocal, and sometimes profane, critics of the woebegone, slush pit of a halfpipe at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, Farrington seemed to take in stride. She's not given to griping. Growing up on the ranch, complaints often fell on unsympathetic ears. When his children told him about minor injuries they’d suffered, her father was wont to reply, “Put it on the list.”

In a pipe that was considerably improved from earlier in the week but still slushy in parts, Farrington’s second run, highlighted by a switchback 720 rotation into a backside 900, earned a 91.75. That put her into the lead with six riders to go.

One by one, her rivals fell short, or fell on their backsides, until the only rider left with a chance to unseat her was her teammate, Clark.

Thirty years old and competing in her fourth Olympics, Clark was coming off a dominant season. In her first finals run, however, she seemed to get caught in a rogue thermal while descending from one of her spins, crash-landing on the deck then sliding backward, headfirst, 20-plus feet to the bottom of the pipe.

Bruised but unbowed, she dropped in for the final run of the night. It was very good, but not great. A mid-run fishtail in the flat bottom bled some speed, which cost her amplitude and flattened her last few hits. As soon as Clark finished, a smiling man with a complexion like the Marlboro Man -- the same fellow who’d shouted “Go Kelly!” at the beginning of her run -- now declared, “Not enough. Not enough.”

This, of course, was Gary Farrington, Kaitlyn’s father, standing at the bottom of the pipe and accurately predicting that Clark’s run wouldn’t quite be enough to bump his daughter off the top rung. Which was astounding, really. The second, third and fourth place finishers -- Torah Bright of Australia, and Americans Clark and Hannah Teter -- were all former gold medalists in this event. There they were, looking up at a first-time Olympian whose stated goal, after just barely eking out a place on the American team, was to “come here and land my runs.”

Maybe that’s the way to do it: come in with low expectations and let it rip. Clark and Teter won their gold medals in their first Olympics, as well. Asked if he’d foreseen the sight of his daughter with a gold medal around her neck, Gary paused briefly, then elected to tell the truth: “No.”

Beside him, in a red, white and blue ski hat, was his ex-wife, Kaitlyn’s mother, Suz Locke, holding sign that said, “Cowgirl Up.”

They’d made the journey from Ketchum, Idaho, where as a girl Kaitlyn swam for the Wood River Dolphins, whose coach at the time, Chris Jafay, would exhort fatigued female charges to “Cowgirl up!”

Kaitlyn was a backstroker, and didn’t much care for the sport. “She hated it,” Suz recalls. “I have a picture of her swimming with a cast on her arm.”

After Gary and Suz split up, he moved to a house “just down the road,” on the ranch, “so the kids went back and forth,” on a horse or ATV. Even though her parents were ski bums, Kaitlin gravitated early to the ‘board. Racing for the Sun Valley Snowboard Team, she had quick, frequent success in contests. As she got older, those contests became more far-flung.

To pay for the trip to a competition, they’d sell a cow. “Before I’d go to school,” she says, “I’d help my dad load a cow up into the trailer.” She would proceed to school, he’d go to the weekly auction in Shoshone, Idaho, an hour down the road, and return with the cash that enabled her to compete. By the time she got some serious endorsements, they’d sold off most of the herd.

Good investment. She improved throughout this season, then punched her ticket to Sochi with a surprise win in that final Olympic qualifier. At the Extreme Park on Wednesday Farrington failed to advance directly to the finals from the qualifiers, unlike Teter and Clark, which meant she’d basically be riding all day. And she was fine with that. It helped her get the hang of a still-suspect pipe.

“Semifinals were really good practice for me,” she chirped.

No less remarkable than her winning run – highlighted by a switch back 720 into a backside 900, chock full of stylish, proper “grabs” -- was the fact that she changed it up all day, from qualifiers to the semis to the finals. Teter and Clark, it seems have been throwing the same run for years. That Farrington kept mixing hers up, like someone experimenting with different combinations on a Chinese food menu, is a testament to how well-rounded -- and easily bored -- she is.

The judges took their sweet time scoring Clark’s final run. Whereas Kelly looked deeply stressed, awaiting the judges’ verdict, Farrington was all smiles. She knew that, came what may, she was already in the medals. She had 'Cowgirled Up.'

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