After the women'shalfpipe had ended, and all the European and Asian and Australian riders haddried their tears and brushed the snow off their backsides, Hannah Teter made asilent statement. In the flower ceremony at Bardonecchia on Monday, the goldmedal winner stepped onto the stage holding an American flag by the topcorners. The wind caught Old Glory, and it looked for a moment as if Tetermight take wing. ¬∂ And why not? In helping lead the U.S. snowboarding team to apreposterously dominant performance in the men's and women's halfpipe events atthe Turin Winter Games, the 19-year-old from Belmont, Vt., had soared over hercompetition, which, frankly, seemed intimidated by all the American women. Notonly did Gretchen Bleiler, 24, win silver but also U.S. teammates Kelly Clark,22, and Elena Hight, 16, placed fourth and sixth, respectively. "Wedefinitely were in the other teams' heads," said halfpipe coach Bud Keene."When these girls come rolling in like a freight train, it scares the crapout of everybody."
This is an article from the Feb. 20, 2006 issue
Making it all themore glorious for American shredders was that Teter and Bleiler merely reprisedthe gold-silver finish of a day earlier by their countrymen Shaun White andDanny Kass. "They have really good conditions, good pipes, good weather [inthe U.S.]," said Norwegian rider Kjersti Buass, the women's bronzemedalist, in trying to fathom how Team USA had so thoroughly dashed the hopesof many of the world's best. "We've got to go there and practice. They're alittle bit ahead of us."
No, Kjersti. TheAmericans are, as Keene put it, "head and shoulders" above the rest ofyou. Just as White had proved in the first of his two runs in the men's finalson Sunday, when he strung together the event's most sublime sequence. It wasn'tso much the difficulty of his tricks--even for this crowd, they wereadvanced--as it was the panache with which he pulled them off. While otherriders gouged out chunks of the pipe with their landings, the 19-year-old fromCarlsbad, Calif., slotted his, kissing the snow upon reentry, popping off thelip of the pipe as if his board were spring-loaded.
That run earnedWhite 46.8 points out of a possible 50. One by one the finest boarders on theplanet vainly took their best shots at him. Christophe Schmidt of Germany had astrong run going but bounced off his backside on his final landing,butt-checking himself off the podium. Kass threw down a dazzling run thatearned him a 44, which held up for silver. Finland's Markku Koski was the finalrider with a shot to unseat White. But Koski's attempt at a cab 1080 turnedinto a cab 1040, dragging his tail around for the final quarter rotation, andhe barely won the bronze.
What the finalslacked in suspense, White made up for with his glorious mane, a titian curtainof tonsorial splendor that is to this teen idol what the red cape was to acertain action hero. Having already won the halfpipe, the Superman ofsnowboarding--indeed, of all extreme sports, for White also competes, and wins,as a pro skateboarder--found that his final run would be superfluous. Ratherthan play his trump card, an unheard-of backside 1080, he jump-started his goldmedal 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 thewall to spray spectators with a rooster tail of slush.
In so doing, hebrought his brief career full circle.
Shaun White wasborn in Carlsbad on Sept. 3, 1986. His mother, Cathy, was the daughter ofRoller Derby professionals. "We think that's where Shaun got hisbalance," she says. His father, Roger, worked for the water department innearby San Clemente and surfed every chance he got. Shaun was named for ShaunThompson, a hard-charging South African tube rider whom his father admired. Oneof Roger's great regrets is that he once took young Shaun surfing on a coldday. After that his son found excuses not to join him at the beach. Had thefreckled wunderkind devoted his energies to that board sport, Kelly Slatermight be walking around with fewer world championships. And snowboarding in theU.S. would not be on the cusp of its next logarithmic leap forward.
In 2002 anestimated 92 million TV viewers in the U.S. watched American riders RossPowers, 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 wonnine straight events heading into the Olympics, was not a crossover athletecapable of competing with the best skateboarders in the world; did not have, asWhite does, his own line of snowboarding outerwear. If you are a crotchety oldskier who resents the plague of shredders on your slopes, Feb. 12 and Feb. 13in Bardonecchia were not good days for you. As you read this, White is makingthe rounds on the network talk shows, using his gold medal as a portkey to theuninitiated. It may be time to extend an olive branch to that baggy-pantsed,begoggled shredder on the chairlift beside you. (Sample icebreaker: "Didyou see Gretchen Bleiler in nothing but body paint on that FHM cover?")Because he isn't going away.
And neither issnowboarding as an Olympic sport. Introduced in Nagano in 1998, it has gonefrom a loopy novelty to a first-week anchor. Part of its popularity is that itis so fluid. Powers, who won gold in 2002 with an epic straight air (estimatedat 20 feet above the lip of the pipe) and back-to-back 720s, didn't even makethis year's team. If you aspired to the podium, you'd better be able to puttogether back-to-back 1080s. During qualifying on Sunday, Mathieu Crepel ofFrance tried a 1260 and in a Friday training run was said to have landed a1440. This escalation has sparked a philosophical debate around the pipe--tothe extent that such a thing is possible among young people unable to utterthree sentences without using the word stoked. In one camp are Crepel and hisilk, champions of going for maximum rotations, damn the price to be paid instyle points. On the other side are the Americans, who believe that spinningfor spinning's sake is, well, whack.
The word goingaround at the bottom of the pipe was that the judges would take a dim view ofexcessive spinning, which played to the strengths of the Americans,particularly White, a purist steeped in the lore of his sport.
A shreddingprodigy who was catching air at age six on his first day on a board, accordingto his older brother, Jesse, Shaun was discovered three years later byrepresentatives from Burton. The clothing and equipment manufacturer invitedShaun to be a prerunner--sort of a mascot--for the halfpipe competition at itsU.S. Open in 1996 and began sponsoring him when he turned pro four years later."Every year he got better," recalls Jake Burton, founder of the companythat bears his name and the acknowledged godfather of snowboarding. "Nextthing you know, he's trying to qualify [for pro competitions]. Then he'squalified. Then he's in the finals. All you saw was this little kid out therehaving fun, focusing on the moment. None of us had a clue what was going oninside his head."
It turned out thatthis elfin lad--even now, White only goes about 5'8", 140, seven or sopounds of which is hair--had some moxie in him. Chagrined after failing to makethe '02 Olympic team by three tenths of a point, the then 15-year-old Whitetook his revenge the following year, winning 10 of the 15 events he entered.Last summer he flew to New Zealand, where he practiced on a halfpipe owned byhis friend Frank Wells. There, while watching Shaun execute backside 900s,Jesse noticed that he was sticking that trick "with time to spare."They decided to up the ante. He began "locking in," as Jesse says, abackside 1080.
That rare hitwould be "the cherry on top" of his second run in the finals atBardonecchia, White revealed last Friday. First, however, there was the smallmatter of reaching the finals. Feeling the butterflies that he had spent theweek assuring reporters he would not have on his first run in Sunday'squalifying, White took off too early on his second hit--a backside 900--andsketched the landing, not falling but not sticking it, either. The top sixriders advance to the finals. White was sitting seventh. His Olympic ambitionswould come down to his second run.
Rather thanruminate over his mistake, he and Keene jumped on a chairlift and bagged a halfdozen runs on the mountain. Not practicing. Free-riding. "We rode switch,we slashed, we jerked around," said Keene, who intended for this goof-offsession to remind White that he'd chosen this sport for one reason: to havefun. It worked. Rocking out to AC/DC, dialing down the backside 900 to abackside 540, to ease the pressure a smidgen, White pulled down a 45.3--thehighest qualifying score and a signal to his opponents that their battle in thefinals would be for silver. The U.S. missed a medal sweep only when 18-year-oldMason Aguirre lost the bronze by 1.2 points.
After making itout of Monday's qualifying round, Teter and Bleiler found themselves with timeto kill before the finals. Like Keene and White, they took a chair up themountain--closed to the public for weeks, the top was blanketed in untrackedpowder--and had a blast. Scooting under a fence, the halfpipe artists poachedthe snowboardcross course, while a security cop shouted helplessly at them inItalian. It was the most fun Teter had during a week in which she'd battled jetlag and a trick knee. While Clark ripped up the pipe in training, Teter hadbeen inconsistent.
Watching hislittle sister warm up on the morning of the competition, Amen Teter saw achange come over her. "She had that bounce," he said. "She washaving fun, and when Hannah's having fun, she's riding her best." Fresh offher illicit tour of the snowboardcross course, Teter killed it in the pipe,soaring as high as the guys on her straight airs in a run highlighted by aperfect frontside 900 with a textbook lean grab.
Clark was the lastreal threat to Teter, and on the first two hits of her final run she flewhigher than any woman had that day, higher than some men the day before. On herlast, huge hit--a frontside 900 that, if executed successfully, would haverelieved Teter of the gold--Clark wound up "in the backseat. I came in onmy tail and sat down." A safer run would almost certainly have put her onthe podium. "I figured I might as well leave here not regrettinganything," said Clark, her voice firm but her eyes red-rimmed. "Andthat's how I'm leaving."
Because Clark sat,Teter and Bleiler stood on the stage holding their flags just as White and Kasshad cloaked themselves in the Stars and Stripes the previous day. At theirpress conference Kass busted White for crying during the flower ceremony("I had tears, but I wasn't crying," White insisted), and the twoshared potential pickup lines for figure skater Sasha Cohen. ("Hey, you do1080s, and we do 1080s," quipped White.) Later, following the medalsceremony, where his locks failed to hide his tears, and after doing so manyinterviews he lost count, White rolled into a small party at the USOC's Turinheadquarters. He embraced his sister Kari and parents, Roger and Cathy, in whomhe confided, "I think my life has changed."
So has the sporthe now owns.