Monday, February 11, 2002
Updated: February 15, 4:46 PM ET
Powers leads U.S. medals sweep in halfpipe
PARK CITY, Utah -- Gold, silver, bronze. Red, white and blue.
Snowboarders Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas rendered those colors interchangeable and indivisible Monday, giving the United States its first medals sweep in the Winter Olympics in 46 years.
With chants of "USA, USA, USA" coming from the crowd of 30,000, the three Americans made history on the halfpipe, soaring into the sunshine for an unforgettable Olympic moment.
They catapulted their Gen X sport out of the fringe and into the spotlight -- and put America alone on the medals stand.
"I couldn't ask for anything more," said Powers, who turned 23 on Sunday. "It's the best birthday present ever. These guys beside me is also huge. Today was just the perfect day."
Flying 10 and 15 feet above the hollowed-out snow chute, the Americans won all three medals in a Winter event for the first time since the 1956 Cortina Games, when the U.S. men's figure skating team did it.
It was only the second Winter Games sweep ever for the United States, and it was topped by Powers, who adds gold to the bronze medal he won in Nagano four years ago.
The sweep bumped the United States up to six medals in these Olympics, including the halfpipe gold won Sunday by Kelly Clark, who was on hand to watch her countrymen sweep. Before the games, the Americans said they hoped to win a total of 20 medals.
Germany and Austria are tied with the United States for overall medals.
On Monday, it was a rare sweep in front of frenzied, flag-waving fans.
It was the biggest crowd any of these athletes had performed for, a turnout boosted when high winds postponed the women's downhill event and sent thousands down the mountain to check out the halfpipe.
And really, there was no better place to be on this day.
After all, where else would fans have taken in the sight of Finnish star snowboarder Heikki Sorsa, who used an entire can of hairspray to spike his hair and give himself a foot-high mohawk?
How about a rock band playing during intermission?
Or the way the winners celebrated, signing the bare breasts of an avid fan? (Thomas took care of the left, and Powers did the right).
Olympic victories are supposed to put athletes on Wheaties boxes, but maybe not this time.
"I'm going to be on the Count Chocula box!" Kass yelled. "Count Chocula!"
That's snowboarding -- X-treme, X-citing, X-hilirating, and something America and the world will see much more of in the wake of this unprecedented success.
"It's a fun sport," Powers said. "It's people listening to music, having a fun time, going for it. Everyone's friends."
Powers set the winning mark of 46.1 early. He was the fourth rider to hit the snow in the finals, and his very first push above the rim of the pipe was stunning -- his body flying 15 feet in the air, parallel to the ground, with the sun overhead making for a picturesque silhouette.
"Probably the highest airs I've ever done in my life," he said.
Further down the chute, he made two full revolutions, once while doing a somersault in the air. He did tricks with names like "mute grab," "stalefish," and "switch McTwist," each one more daring than the next, and all with landings as smooth as the shiny ice on the sides of the pipe.
It came after a harrowing fall in his first qualifying run. That could have made him nervous, but he recovered, made a great second run to advance to the finals and then went on the ride of his life for the gold.
Kass, the 19-year-old future of the sport, had two chances to top Powers.
Listening to a compilation of music through his earphones while he went down the chute -- Metallica, AC/DC, Black Sabbath -- Kass was incredible in his own way. But his corkscrew turn and his famed "Kasserole spin" -- two upside-down twists while grabbing the board -- weren't enough to win gold. He scored a 42.5, and it was still a great day.
"Getting a medal is just downright radical," he said.
The 20-year-old Thomas won the bronze on his second ride with an equally impressive run, pulling a 2½-revolution spin and soaring almost as high as Powers.
"I just had fun on that second run," he said. "I watched these guys do it and I just followed up. It's not about me. It's about Ross. Ross is the man."
Sixth-place finisher Tommy Czeschin was the only American left out of the party. His first run put him in third place, but after Thomas overtook him, Czeschin needed to go higher. He thought he did, but when his score was posted, he looked on in disbelief, and the crowd booed.
But really, it was hard to call any American a loser on this day.
Snowboarding is a distinctly American sport, created on a lark by a man in Michigan, Sherman Poppen, who in 1965 braced a pair of skis together and tied them with a rope so he could give his daughters something to do during the winter.
He called the contraption a Snurfer, combining the words snow and surfer. A few years later, entrepreneur Jake Burton Carpenter improved the snowboard and started the wave that continues to this day.
When the International Olympic Committee added snowboarding in 1998, many questioned whether the so-called "lifestyle sport" belonged in the Olympics.
Carpenter was one of the skeptics, but he couldn't deny the magic of this moment.
"This is a whole new level," he said. "You wouldn't get riding like that if this was a cutthroat sport. They were out there pulling for each other."
Indeed, the runners-up were happy for Powers, a "veteran" of the sport compared to Kass and Thomas, if only because he has previous Olympic experience.
He's also an X-Games veteran, although his greatest success in those games came back in 1998, when he won two golds at the competition that used to be considered the pinnacle of this sport.
"I'm sure after this, the public will see how far snowboarding has come," Thomas said. "They'll see the time we had today. And they'll see this is one of the funnest sports in the world."