Olympics: U.S. snowboarders looking to raise the Bar

By Mike Snavely

At these winter games, one sport that promises to thrill is snowboarding, and the U.S. team is poised to dominate. Since the sport’s entrance into the Olympics in 1998, the U.S. has always fielded a strong team, but this year coach Peter Foley is confident that “We are going into the 2010 Games with one of the strongest athletic lineups possible.”This lineup is off to a strong start, as veteran Seth Westcott defended his gold medal in the snowboard cross on Monday. The snowboard cross is an all-out race between four athletes over rolling terrain, jumps, and ramps. The first one down the hill wins. Contact between the racers is allowed and certainly plays a part, as the winner is usually the racer who can stay on his board all the way to the finish line.

The final heat on Monday started with Westcott trailing, but he overtook Canadian Mike Robertson late in the race in a heart-pounding finish. With the victory, Westcott became only the second American skier or snowboarder since 1952 to win two golds.

The women’s team wasn’t quite as lucky as the soft snow conditions took their toll on America’s favorite Lindsay Jacobellis on Tuesday. Jacobellis, who took silver in Torino in ’06, had an early exit in the semifinals as she overshot a jump, caught an edge, and fell into a gate – an immediate disqualification. Jacobellis was hoping to redeem herself after she blew a demanding lead in the ’06 games when she feel after attempting a method grab on the final jump, and falling.

The other event that the U.S. has not only dominated, but also pioneered is the halfpipe. The poster-child for the U.S. halfpipe team, Shaun “Animal” White, defended his gold on Wednesday night, and teammate Scotty Lago took home the bronze. This combo gave the U.S. multiple medals in the halfpipe for the last three Olympics.

White, dubbed the “Animal” for his resemblance to the Muppet Show Band drummer, is coming off his record tenth gold medal in the Winter X Games Superpipe, where he raised the bar for snowboarders everywhere by introducing the must-have trick for this year’s games: the double cork. The trick resembles a corkscrewing double-backflip, and in White’s particular version, dubbed the Double McTwist 1260, he spins around three and a half times while completing the two flips. On Wednesday night, White got to show off his new trick during a pressure-free victory lap, after he sealed the gold with a score of 46.8 on his first run.

The U.S. women’s halfpipe team is arguably just as stacked as the men’s. Hannah Teter, who is the defending gold medalist, is joined by her accomplished teammates Kelly Clark and Gretchen Bleiler. All three were on the podium in last month’s Winter X Games, and have every reason to do the same in the finals on Thursday. Their top competition is Torah Bright of Australia, who missed the X Games because of a concussion.

The third and final snowboarding event in this year’s games is the Parallel Giant Slalom (PGS). This event was originally the Individual Giant Slalom, but was replaced by the PGS in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

The PGS involves two athletes racing head-to-head down an alpine course, through a series of gates, and the fastest racer moves on to the next round. The favorite for the U.S. on paper as well as in the hearts of many is Chris Klug who is the first person to receive an Olympic Medal (bronze) after receiving a liver transplant. Klug is joined by 2006 Olympian Tyler Jewell, who came out on top in the team selection process. The finals for men’s PGS are on Saturday, Feb. 27.

On the women’s side, Michelle Gorgone of Massachussetts is America’s lone athlete in the Parallel Giant Slalom. In 2008, Gorgone took first in the American finals and second in the World Cup and she has a strong shot at the podium this winter in Vancouver.

So far the U.S. snowboard team has lived up to expectations and shows no sign of slowing down as the Games continue. In the first week it has defended two golds, invented a new trick and has medal favorites going forward. If you’re looking for a team to follow this February, you don’t need to look any further than the 2010 U.S. Olympic Snowboard Team.