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Good 'n' Ugly

Feb. 23, 2009
Feb. 23, 2009

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Feb. 23, 2009

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Good 'n' Ugly

With a year to go before the Vancouver Games, halfpiper extraordinaire Shaun White and his fellow riders put on a show at Cypress Mountain, despite a slew of glitches at the Olympic venue

THEY AREloose-fitting, low-hanging, often stridently colored. Perhaps you've askedyourself how they stay up. They are snowboard pants, and at last week's WorldCup competition and Olympic test event at Cypress Mountain, overlookingVancouver, they doubled as cranky pants. Seriously, it's a good thing the 2010organizers didn't hang a suggestion box at the venue, which a year from nowwill host the Winter Games' six snowboarding events. It would have been toosmall to hold all the gripes.

This is an article from the Feb. 23, 2009 issue

And that heldtrue before the Vancouver Olympic organizers' most controversial (andembarrassing) move—the 11th-hour cancellation of Sunday's parallel giantslalom, due in part to "limited time in advance of the event to prepare theterrain," according to Tim Gayda, a vice president of the organizingcommittee, which is known as VANOC. The anger of the PGS competitors had beenpreceded by a succession of smaller beefs from the halfpipe and snowboardcrossriders. The boarders were forced to park too far from the venue. Their practiceand race-day routines were scrambled for no stated reason; their paths oftenblocked by overzealous security guards, apparently on loan, one rider joked,from a nearby mall, site of the event's lame, lightly attended medalceremonies.

The tepid welcomecame as a rude buzzkill to many snowboarders, who arrived in Vancouver feeling,justifiably, like Olympic royalty. No longer a ragtag upstart, their sport isnow established as a Winter Games centerpiece, and not just because of theamazing Shaun White and the other halfpipers who dazzled in Turin in 2006. Sopleased were Olympic officials with the chaotic, crash-intensive andTV-friendly event of snowboardcross, which debuted in Turin, that they haveadded a skiing knockoff version of it—skicross—to the program for 2010. It evenwill be held on the same course as the Olympic snowboardcross.

Skicross, in itsown small way, contributed to the friction at Cypress. The popular resort, ahalf hour north of Vancouver, has a number of season-ticket holders who'vegrown weary of sharing their mountain with VANOC. A week before thesnowboarders arrived, Cypress hosted an Olympic test event in freestyle skiing,including skicross, in which—to the delight of the fans—Canadians swept themen's medals and went one-two on the women's side.

Among those notfeeling the love last weekend, however, was Jesse Fulton, a halfpipe coach fromCanada who had this to say about Cypress: "It's a crappy venue, and thepeople aren't nice. We were just at the world championships in [South] Korea,and we were treated like kings. We come here to where the Olympics are supposedto be, and it's like a burden for them. So many things that could be easy aremade difficult."

And then, theunkindest cut: "Honestly, I'd like to see the pipe in Whistler [site of2010 Alpine, Nordic and sledding events] or somewhere else. I don't even knowwhy this resort got it. They don't even like snowboarders."

What else? Theathletes were underwhelmed by their lounge, which was inconveniently located.And don't even get them started on the halfpipe, which turned out to be moreflawed than the Bowl Championship Series.

It was too shortand too young (at four days old, it was not given enough time to "set,"said the halfpipers). It failed to follow the mountain's fall line and wasn'tsteep enough from start to finish. Its flat bottom was too often covered in agrainy snow that slowed the riders between tricks. Most damning: It was whatboarders call "under-vert"—that is, its walls weren't sufficientlyvertical, which had the unfortunate result of expelling unwary riders out ofthe pipe and onto the deck, the flat area usually occupied by photographers butwhich served, at this event, as a strip for countless crash landings.

However, unlessyou were a PGS boarder who'd flown in from seven or eight time zones away andspent the week training at another nearby mountain because the friendly folksat Cypress wouldn't let you on their hill, it was tough to stay angry. Everyswitchback on the ride up the mountain showcased a freshly stunning vista, andserved as a reminder that—last week's glitches aside—Vancouver remains aninspired choice to host next year's Games.

THE DOMINANTcolors of the Cypress winterscape: the white of the snow, the forest green ofthe pines, and auburn. That would be the shade of the iconic mane of ShaunWhite, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, who kept a disarming grin on hisface even as he was asphyxiating the hopes of his rivals. Rocketing off the lipon the opening trick of his first run in Saturday's final (a massive straightair), White hung so high that he seemed in danger of being carried off by somerogue thermal. He touched down instead in a flawed pipe whose imperfectionscouldn't prevent him from delivering a near-perfect run. After slotting thelanding on his final trick (a backside rodeo during which he went airborne,turned his back down the hill and flipped 540 degrees—the rotations smooth,unhurried, technically precise), he sprayed the front row of spectators with arooster tail of snow.

Eleven ridersstill had a crack at him. The judges had yet to render his score. (It would bethe day's highest: 47.3 of a possible 50.) But the moment White stuck hislanding, a thousand or so spectators had the same thought: He just won thisthing.

The victory wasthe fourth in six events (including the X Games) this winter for the22-year-old White, who has again made himself the Olympic favorite."Shaun's been killing it for quite a few years now," says Canadian Brad(B-Rad) Martin, who was seventh at Cypress. "It just seems that whenever westart to get closer, he ups the ante."

Only slightlyless dominant this season has been U.S. teammate Kelly Clark, 25, the low-key,high-flying Vermonter who took first in the women's halfpipe at Cypress. Recallthat after winning gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Clark needed just anaverage (for her) final run to be assured of a medal in Turin. Instead, shedoubled down and tried a frontside 900 that she couldn't quite hold on to. Themoment her backside touched the pipe, she fell off the podium, finishing fourthbut with zero regrets.

With an eye onreclaiming Olympic gold, she has streamlined her snowboarding, the way a golferdeconstructs his swing. "I got to the point in my riding," sheexplains, "where I could do the trick, could muscle my board around and getit done. But to make progress, to fix bad habits and reach another level, I hadto go back to basics—edging, control, technique. I expected it to pay off inthe long run. I wasn't looking for it to pay off this season."

It has. She haswon three times, and the week before Cypress she led a U.S. sweep of a WorldCup in Bardonecchia, Italy, ahead of 2006 gold medalist Hannah Teter and '06silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler. With most of her teammates struggling in thesubpar pipe at Cypress, Clark was pushed by one of the few women capable ofmatching her astounding amplitude. That would be China's Jiayu Liu, an18-year-old whose 39.0 was good for the silver behind Clark's 42.6. Takingthird was the effervescent Teter, a yogini and maple-syrup maven who isdonating the proceeds from Hannah's Gold, plus her winnings this year, to aKenyan village she has adopted. Following her final run, she dismissed out ofhand the idea that the snowboarding gods might have been punishing her for herostentatious gold eyeliner. "No way," she said. "I put this onyesterday."

FRIDAY WAS a bigday on the slopes at Cypress. John Furlong, VANOC's affable, accessible CEO,showed up with a long-faced gentleman who looked vaguely familiar. Was it?Could it be? Yes, it was. International Olympic Committee president JacquesRogge was in the house!

The two grandeeshad come up the mountain for the augur-fest otherwise known as men's andwomen's snowboardcross, in which four highly aggressive boarders hurtle down asinuous, banked course designed to comfortably accommodate one. Equal partsdownhill and roller derby, boardercross was a brilliant addition to the WinterGames, and though it has continued the X-ification of the Olympics—a processthat might have appalled Rogge's IOC forebears—it, like the rest ofsnowboarding, is now comfortably part of the Games establishment. Said Furlong,with Rogge by his side, "When you're spending all your time oninfrastructure, venues, the economy, tourism, sometimes you have to stop andremind yourself why you're doing it." The CEO gets a huge lift, as he putit, "from the inspirational power of these athletes."

The women'sboardercross riders inspire with their toughness. Dominique Maltais, a Montrealfirefighter, washed out in the quarterfinals on Friday but had a decent excuse."I broke my left wrist four months ago," she explained, "and myright wrist four weeks ago."

It was Maltaiswho took bronze in Turin despite sailing ass-over-bandbox, off the course andinto a fence. Having clawed and crawled back onto the track, she medaled byvirtue of finishing. Tanja Frieden of Switzerland won the gold in that race.Remember who took the silver?

Of course you do.On the bottom third of the course Frieden was far behind Lindsey Jacobellis,whose decision to garnish her final jump with a board-grab cost the then20-year-old her balance and the gold medal.

"It sounds alittle Disney," says Jacobellis, "but my mom always told me, 'You can'tdwell on the past.' And I'm not. I'm looking forward."

After apredictable period of post-Olympic blahs, during which she wondered why she wasdevoting her life to something she found so stressful, Jacobellis won a fewevents. "And I started to find my passion for the sport again, my hungerfor that competitive edge."

That hunger hasmanifested itself in a slew of recent victories. After winning her fifth XGames gold last month, she laid waste to the field at Cypress, taking earlyleads on her overmatched opponents and cruising to victory. "Lindsey is theonly female on the World Cup circuit who can train with the guys and not loseground to them," says Seth Wescott, 32, the elder statesman of Americanboardercross. "That's why she's so dominant."

After winning thegold medal in Turin, Wescott shattered his left forearm at a race in Japan twoyears ago—he's walking around with 13 screws and a plate in him—and only thisseason has begun to recover his mojo. He won his first World Cup event inDecember and has continued to ride at a high level, despite being knocked outof a lot of races through no fault of his own.

In snowboardcrossthose things have a way of evening out. Wescott was in fourth place in Friday'sfinal when the karmic wheel turned in his favor: Canada's François Boivincaught an edge, took a spill and handed the American the bronze.

No fall elicitedmore drama than White's spill at the end of a meaningless run early in the day.(He'd already qualified for the finals.) When he tried to get into the VIP tentat the bottom of the pipe so a doctor could examine his strained right thumb,the guard at the door wasn't budging.

After a briefstandoff it was explained to the sentry that the slight and freckled hairfarmer in front of him happened to be the world's best extreme athlete. Onceinside, White picked at a bowl of fruit salad while icing his thumb and riffingon subjects ranging from artificial knees to an American Express commercial hefilmed a few years back ("It was so cool. Scorsese kept giving melines") to what he does on his summer vacation.

He tends to spendthem burnishing his credentials as the most dominant crossover athlete in thebrief history of extreme sports. The owner of nine Winter X gold medals, hepicked up another gold in skateboarding at the '07 Summer X Games."Skateboarding is training," White says, "but I don't think of itas training. It's fun. Then, when the time comes, I'm so amped to get back onmy [snow]board."

Behind thewhimsical demeanor and the theatrical drapery of his hair, there lurks an√ºberintense competitor; a poor loser. In December, White finished second behindDanny Davis at a competition in Colorado. Afterward judges told Mike Jankowski,White's coach, that Davis had won on the strength of his switch backsidespins—difficult, unconventional tricks.

"That day,that day," Jankowski recalls, "Shaun hiked back up the pipe and stayedout until he'd learned backside spins.

"Shaun's runsright now are as big and beautiful as they've ever been," adds the coach,who then sends a gloomy message to White's rivals. "But he hasn't broughtout the big guns yet. When the time comes and the need arises, he's going to beprepared."

Riders can onlyhope the same is true of their Olympic venue.

Snowboardcross was such a hit in Turin that the IOCadded a skiing version—SKICROSS—for 2010.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Bob MartinNO CONTEST After White nailed his run in a much-grumbled-about halfpipe, there was no doubt about who the winner was.PHOTOJED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES [Seecaption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Bob MartinTRIAL BY FLYERS In skicross, Ashleigh McIvor (leading) was second to fellow Canadian Aleisha Cline; Markus Schairer of Austria (below, in yellow) won boardercross.PHOTOPhotograph by Bob Martin[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Bob MartinEASY DOES IT The low-key Clark, who won Olympic gold in 2002, has dominated the women's halfpipe this season.PHOTOJED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]PHOTO