He'd been spinning tunes for two days at the Olympic halfpipe in
Park City, playing everything from AC/DC to Led Zeppelin. He'd
made many inspired decisions and several questionable ones (Dude,
ABBA?). But this was, without question, D.J. Smokey's finest
moment. At the conclusion of the flower ceremony that followed
the men's halfpipe finals, Danny DeSmidt, a.k.a. D.J. Smokey,
cranked up Born in the USA.
Played at an international sporting event on American soil, that
Springsteen antianthem would smack of jingoism. On this golden
Monday afternoon it was pitch-perfect. In a stunning, historic
trifecta, a trio of Americans swept the men's halfpipe, in which
snowboard riders zigzag down a 520-foot semicylinder, catching
air and throwing tricks with such sublimely silly names as Haaken
Flip, Caballerial and Method Air.
That last move was the stunt that launched 23-year-old South
Londonderry, Vt., native Ross Powers 15 feet over the lip of the
pipe on the first hit of his gold-medal-clinching opening run. He
was followed on the podium by Danny Kass, 19, a scraggly-haired
smartass from Hamburg, N.J., whose supertechnical ride featured
his signature Kasserole maneuver, and J.J. Thomas, 20, who went
home to Golden, Colo., with the bronze. It was the first U.S.
sweep of a Winter Olympics event since American men went
one-two-three in figure skating at Cortina in 1956.
Back then none of the figure skaters was asked, as Powers was, to
sign the right breast of a voluptuous blonde in the aftermath of
victory. The champ was only too happy to oblige.
While American mastery of the pipe ended with the men, it began
with the women's competition a day earlier. Before heading to the
venue on Monday morning, Powers watched video of his fellow
Vermonter, Kelly Clark, who'd set the snowboarding world on its
ear. In second place behind Doriane Vidal of France, Clark needed
a superior score of 43.1 (out of a possible 50) on her last run
to win America's first gold medal of these Olympics. Amped on
adrenaline and with nothing to lose--the worst she could do was
silver--Clark attacked the pipe, launching gigantic airs that left
her silhouetted against the Wasatch Range.
There had been grumbling among the baggy pants set that the
halfpipe judges at the Games had fallen behind the sport. Olympic
snowboarding, which made its debut in Nagano in 1998, is governed
by Federation International de Ski (FIS), whose judges tend to
reward amplitude (height) and straight air (basic, sometimes
vanilla) maneuvers over more challenging spins and rotations.
With the exception of Kass, the technician, that suited the
American men fine. After his gold medal run, Powers estimated
that he had never gone higher on a snowboard. It was also fine
with Clark, who gets bigger air than any other woman in the world
and who, just to cover her bases, finished her run with a pair of
technical tricks: a flawless McTwist, a move she had struggled
with in practice, and a 720-degree spin. She landed them both,
pulling down a 47.9. She was golden.
Another first had been achieved earlier, during the intermezzo
between the women's qualifying runs and the finals. As the band
Lit jammed, a hundred or so of the 20,000 snowboarding fans in
attendance formed what was believed to be the first mosh pit at
an Olympic venue. It was a raucous and earsplitting reminder of
how hard the IOC, terrified of becoming irrelevant, has labored
to attract a more youthful demographic. Sometimes it tries too
Last Saturday was the final day the snowboarders could choose the
music that would accompany their rides, and FIS had provided a
list of more than 1,000 tunes it deemed acceptable. Mathieu
Justafre of France wandered over to a table to pick his songs,
and while perusing the list pulled a pack of Marlboros out of his
pocket and lit up. In what other sport do athletes train with
cigarettes on their persons? In this sport one is grateful if
that's all they're smoking.
Not far away, Powers approached the U.S. snowboarding coach,
Peter Foley, and asked him, "Who's killing it?"
Foley paused, and said, referring to the U.S. men who were
practicing, "Well, we are."
Foley was prescient. Going into the final run on Monday, the
Americans stood one-two-three, with a fourth, Tommy Czeschin of
Crowley Lake, Calif., in fifth place. Surely that would not hold
up. One by one, however, the best riders from the rest of the
world came upon hard times. Magnus Sterner of Germany lost an
edge and took a bad fall. Markku Korski of Finland had incredible
airs, but he couldn't sustain his soaring opening. The last
threat to a U.S. sweep was Korski's countryman Heikka (the
Sorceror) Sorssa, whose Mohawk earned him the sobriquet the Finn
with the Fin. Needing a 42.2 to spoil the sweep, Sorssa pulled a
40.4, handing the Americans the deed certifying their ownership
of the halfpipe.
While it appeared everyone in snowboarding was thrilled for
Powers--his foundation provides support for underprivileged
snowboarders--no one was surprised he took the gold. He grew up
skiing on Vermont's Bromley Mountain, where his mother, Nancy,
worked in the lodge's cafeteria. When Ross was seven, he was
given his first snowboard, which he shared with his brother,
Trevor. After Trevor gravitated to skiing, "I kind of took over
the board," says Ross.
Often described as snowboarding's first child prodigy, Powers was
only eight when he caught the attention of Jake Burton Carpenter,
founder of Burton Snowboards. "I remember thinking, Ross Powers,
Ross Powers, who is this kid--he's all I hear about," recalls
Carpenter. "Then I saw him, and I understood all the fuss."
Powers competed in his initial U.S. Open in the fourth grade (his
teacher brought the entire class to watch him), won a national
senior championship at 16 and took the bronze medal at the Nagano
Games at 19. Burton has sponsored him for 15 years.
While Powers carved his turns at Bromley and then Stratton
Mountain, Kelly Clark was upstate at Mount Snow. The Clarks live
on the third floor of a house whose first floor is dedicated to
the family business, TC's Tavern, named for her father, Terry,
who does the cooking. ("Steaks, chops, pasta, homemade pizza,
basic stuff," he says.) Kelly attended Mount Snow Academy and was
ski racing by first grade. The winter she was 11, she stopped
showing up at skiing practice. Terry got a call from one of her
coaches. "Where's Kelly?" asked the coach.
"She's at practice," Terry said.
No, she wasn't. "So I went and checked her cubby," says Terry,
"and there were her skis. Her snowboard was gone. That night I
said, 'Kelly, I know how much you like snowboarding, but it's
just a fad. It's never gonna take off. Stick with skiing.'"
No offense, Terry, but stick to cooking.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Three's a charm Powers (26), Kass (below) and Thomas finished first, second and third, respectively, for the first U.S. Winter Games sweep since 1956.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Finishing touch Clark clinched her victory with a final run that included a flawless McTwist and a 720-degree spin.
Amped on adrenaline and with nothing to lose, Clark attacked the
pipe, launching gigantic airs to win the gold.