SI Vault
Austin Murphy
February 18, 2002
By taking four of the six medals in halfpipe—including both golds and a historic sweep on the men's side—the U.S. proved its air superiority
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February 18, 2002


By taking four of the six medals in halfpipe—including both golds and a historic sweep on the men's side—the U.S. proved its air superiority

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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 hard.

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."

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