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Cruz: Bahrke virtually a woman on fire

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Saturday, February 9, 2002
Updated: February 25, 1:47 AM ET
Bahrke wins surprising silver; Hardaway struggles

Associated Press

PARK CITY, Utah -- American moguls skier Shannon Bahrke was quite a sight at the top of the mountain -- the glitter sparkling around her eyes, the relaxed smile painted on her face.

Kari Traa
Norwegian Kari Traa skied the course last, and easily beat American Shannon Bahrke.

She wasn't bad once she pushed away from the starting gate, either.

Bahrke gave her rowdy family and all of America a moment to remember Saturday. Only the spectacular Kari Traa of Norway kept it from being golden.

Bahrke won the silver in freestyle moguls to earn the distinct honor of winning the first medal for the United States at the Olympics on home turf. Tae Satoya of Japan, who won gold in 1998 in her home country, took the bronze this time.

"It's a huge honor," Bahrke said. "Once it's over, when I'm home seeing other athletes up there on the podium, that's probably when it will hit me."

Before that, there was a celebration on tap, and Bahrke had plenty of people around to make it a good one.

A few dozen of her friends and family -- the Bahrke Brigade -- ringed the area at the bottom of the hill. They all wore bright red, white and blue hats with the words "Go Shannon" embroidered on them.

Her grandparents saw her ski in person for the first time. Her father, Dick, was in tears when it was all over.

"It's just an amazing feeling," Bahrke said. "My family standing back behind me. It's something you can't put into words, to see the smile on your dad's face while the tears are rolling down his cheeks."

But clearly, this was more than a family affair.

Bahrke won the first of 20 medals the Americans are hoping for in these Winter Olympics. She did it in the afterglow of an emotional opening ceremony in which American patriotism, and memories of Sept. 11, were brought back into sharp focus.

"We met people from the New York Fire Department and the police department," she said of her experience Friday night. "I think that gave me a little extra fire. Now that I have the first medal, that makes me very proud. I hope all the other athletes in all the other sports can continue that."

In so many ways, Bahrke's story is what the Olympics are supposed to be all about -- overcoming obstacles, and coming up with the performance of a lifetime on the world's grandest stage.

Nearly three years ago, she almost died from a virulent staph infection. She lost 20 pounds. For a time, she could barely walk. Her doctors told her she would never ski the same way again. She recovered, got stronger and gained perspective, and the whole thing came together on the most perfect of days.

"It made me take every day and look at it in a different way," Bahrke said. "It makes you realize that your body is so precious."

Nearly lost in the Bahrkemania was a disappointing fifth-place finish by the American favorite, Hannah Hardaway.

Struggling with back problems the last several months, Hardaway took a bad approach to the first jump and had to settle for a single helicopter spin. Her second jump was a more difficult double-twister spread, but she landed with a thud -- not good enough to win a medal on this day.

"I pretty much did everything wrong," Hardaway said.

Teammate Ann Battelle finished seventh in this, her fourth Olympics. American Jillian Vogtli failed to qualify for the finals.

Bahrke, meanwhile, was nearly flawless, whipping her way through the bumps and making the smooth transitions from the heights of her daring jumps back to the hard-packed snow.

She performed a helicopter iron cross for one of her jumps -- a full revolution with the tips of the skis crossed, all the while looking straight back toward the top of the hill.

When it was over, Bahrke went crazy, shaking her head, pumping her fists in rapid succession and wiggling her body back and forth.

The glitter on her face, she said, wasn't for good luck, but rather a thing she and American teammate Emiko Torito do to "be extravagant."

And that long smile at the top of the run: "I just felt it was my time to do well and I had to relax. And the only way I know how to do that is to smile," she said

After the run came the wait.

Four skiers were left, including Hardaway and Battelle, and each time Bahrke saw a score lower than hers, she breathed deep, not quite believing she might win the whole thing.

But with Traa at the top of the mountain, no lead is ever safe. Bahrke knew there was no sense in rooting for the Norwegian to slip up.

"She's the best in the world and she has proven it time and time and time and time again," Bahrke said. "It makes me happy to be on the same podium with her."

Traa won for the sixth time in seven events this season.

She climbed to the top of this sport about two years ago, an ascent that began when she lost 20 pounds after swearing off chocolate.

"I said to myself, I've got to stop, so I stopped eating chocolate and I stopped putting butter on my bread," she said. "My coach said he saw a big difference. He said my landings were better and I was much quicker. It helped."

Unlike Bahrke, Traa didn't have any family waiting for her at the finish line. She did, however, get a hug from the crown prince of Norway -- not a bad trade-off.

She was happy to have come through for a country that expects nothing but the best from her.

"I normally ski well under pressure," Traa said. "I love that feeling up top, when I know people are expecting things from me."

Traa beat Bahrke by .88 points -- a pretty big margin in this sport -- with a run she called merely "OK." After crossing the finish line, she simply skied off to the side, without raising a hand in celebration.

"It was still good enough to win the gold medal," Bahrke said.

Satoya couldn't match the emotional level of 1998, when she skied in her home country on the heels of her father's death. Still, she was happy to get back to the medals stand.

"This time, I told my father I'd try to do my best, and I think I did my best," she said.