White Soars to Halfpipe Gold; Kass Second


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February 12, 2006

BARDONECCHIA, Italy (AP by Eddie Pells)—Shaun White turned this into another red-white-and-blue day on the Olympic halfpipe. Heavy on the red, of course. The daredevil redhead known as The Flying Tomato punked the competition once again Sunday, mixing altitude with attitude to win the gold medal.

“This whole trip, I’ve been saying, `It’s just another competition,’ White said. “But deep down, I really cared the most.

American Danny Kass was second. Only Finland’s Markku Koski kept the Americans from a repeat of their history-making sweep of 2002. American Mason Aguirre came close, finishing fourth, 1.2 points behind Koski.

But nobody on the sunsplashed mountains of Bardonecchia was complaining. The two medals were a welcome reprieve for a struggling U.S. Olympic team, staggered by busts on the men’s downhill and moguls courses and the sudden withdrawal of figure skating’s Michelle Kwan due to injury.

It was no surprise that White _ “Il Pomodoro Volante, as he’s known in Italy _ supplied the magic.

Wearing a Stars-and-Stripes bandanna over his chin, his mop of red hair peeking out from under the helmet, he soared through the crystal blue sky for the winning score of 46.8 on his first run of the finals. That was a full 2.8 points better than Kass, who added this silver to the one he won in Salt Lake City.

“I’m so overwhelmed right now, I can barely keep my sentences going, White said.

Indeed, it was an emotional day for the 19-year-old Californian, who fell during his first qualifying run and had to wait nearly two hours _ until the final run of the second round of qualifying _ to ensure his spot among the 12 finalists.[pagebreak]Sensing the nervousness of an athlete who has always played it cool, U.S. coach Bud Keene took White up the lift. It turned out to be one of the great coaching moves in snowboarding’s short Olympic history.

“We did free runs, nonstop, Keene said. “Just me and him. We just went snowboarding. We just went up, we made turns, we slashed. … Instead of standing up at the top, letting pressure build staring into the pipe, we went out and had some fun.

Buoyed by the break, White advanced. His run through the finals was nowhere near as dramatic.

With AC/DC’s “Back In Black blaring over the sound system, White practically touched the sky on his first jump, soaring about 25 feet over the edge of the icy halfpipe. He came back with consecutive 1080-degree jumps, grabbing his board on both, which earns big style points from the judges.

Then, it was a pair of 900s _ one off the frontside wall and another off the backside. Nobody else tried the backside 900, and in a sport where the tricks are constantly evolving, that was the difference between first and second place.

“Shaun has been surprising me since I first saw him ride as a 9-year-old, said snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton. “He single-handedly took our sport to a whole new level.

In halfpipe finals, riders get two trips down the chute and only their best score counts. After White’s winning run, he waited and watched the 11 riders take their second trips. Nobody could better his score, though, and when the second-to-last rider, Koski, fell on his final jump, White knew he had the gold wrapped up.

He punched the air with this fists, hugged his coaches and waved to the crowd.[pagebreak]The final run could have been the stage to show off that vaunted backside 1080 air everyone was waiting for. But he was gassed _ from a long season of excellence in which he won all five Olympic qualifying events and the X Games, and the long journey to Italy, and the harrowing run through qualifying.

“I barely held it together for that run, White said. “I was going to ride just straight down and just live it up, but I wanted to hit some airs.

He hit a couple and fell. Then, he coasted down the bottom of the pipe, hands thrust upward to start the celebration.

At the bottom, White embraced his parents, who encouragedd his snowboarding. That led to his first endorsement deal at age 13, but also resulted in broken arms and legs and even a fractured skull.

“It’s a great sport, but you don’t land all the time, he said. “It had to have been a trip for them.

During the awards ceremony, both White and Kass draped themselves in the American flag. White ran his fingers through his mussed hair, locks of red peaking through. The Flying Tomato has long said he wished he could have another nickname _ something a little more cool.

But really, is there anyone more hip than an Olympic champion in halfpipe?

This was a sport that didn’t seem to fit into the Olympic program in its first two tries. Snowboarders didn’t like the conformist nature that has long defined the Olympics, nor did they like the rules set down by skiing’s governing bodies, which didn’t really seem to grasp the “lifestyle spirit of their sport.

A lot of that changed after 2002 _ so much so that White came into the Turin Games as something of a household name, well-known among kids and with his own clothing line and DVD, and more than $1 million in endorsements.

This victory should only add to the stash.

So, what does the coolest guy in the coolest sport around do for an encore?

“I’m hoping Sasha Cohen digs gold medals, White said, referring to the 21-year-old figure skater, who also does 1080s. “We have a lot in common.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press

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