Bahrke has a smokin' day

PARK CITY, Utah -- Curls of steam rose from the carpet as Shannon Bahrke entered the room, the rising smoke a perfect special effect for a woman en fuego.

After a mistake-free run on the bumps and two huge tricks, a Heli X (an upright 360 with an iron cross) and a straight Heli (an upright 360), Bahrke had won silver -- the first American medal of these Games. And as the Squaw Valley native sat down for the medalists' press conference, her face glowed with happy disbelief, matching the thick smears of glitter on her eyes and cheeks. Her face lit up even more as she hugged Kari Traa, the gold medalist.

"I'm so happy for you," she enthused to her friend from Norway. "You've worked so hard for this."

Not that the losers didn't, either.

It was supposed to be Hannah Hardaway's day, her chance to show the world how well she'd been skiing, but the two bulging disks in her back left her tentative on the bumps. She turned an edge and lost too much speed going into her first jump, a straight Heli (an upright 360) that seemed halfhearted. The end result put her in fifth place.

"Mechanically, I pretty much did everything wrong on the first jump," Hardaway explained later.

On the second jump, she threw her favorite triple, a double twister spread. But the first jump still haunted her, and she didn't hit it as aggressively as she needed to, instead drifting left and sitting back on her heels.

Still, at the end of her run, Hardaway lifted her arms into the air, feigning joyous celebration.

"I tried to sell my run to the judges," Hardaway admitted. "But I knew from the top that I got off to a bad start."

U.S. coach Jeff Wintersteen said the lack of media attention helped Bahrke.

"Yeah, Hannah turned out to be a media blocker for Shannon," he said. "It definitely helped that she was able to be more anonymous."

So anonymous that, at the opening ceremonies, while NBC was trolling for athletes to get close-ups of, they asked Bahrke who she was. "Shannon Bahrke," she answered brightly. "Eh," said the NBC wonk, who then walked away.

There was no "eh" about bronze medalist Tae Satoya of Japan. Though she was hoping to successfully defend her Nagano gold, she grinned wildly for Japanese TV, her dyed-red hair peeking out from underneath her knit cap. In a touching show of good will -- and perhaps in anticipation of celebrating yet another Satoya gold -- the Secretary-General of the Japanese Olympic Committee offered chopsticks and Styrofoam take-out trays filled with colorful seaweed salad and rice to journalists aboard the media shuttle.

Onstage in the interview room, however, Satoya sat impassively next to her interpreter, the joy she showed off for her fellow countrymen temporarily vanishing. She calmly explained that her father had died during the Nagano Games, and she had felt then that he was with her the entire time, encouraging her to win gold.

"This time, I told my father that I would do my best," she said. "Nagano was four years ago, a very long time ago for me. And I think I did do my best."

Meanwhile, Bahrke played to the American-heavy audience, cheerleading for the other medalists, interjecting jokes during their answers and doing an mock-offended double-take when a writer asked Traa if the gold had been hers to lose. Hers was no faux enthusiasm.

"After Sept. 11, this is such a special thrill," Bahrke gushed. "Yesterday, we met the President, NYPD and FDNY. So I had a little extra fire skiing the bumps today."

Even the rug knew that.

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.