Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Winter 2002 [Print without images]

Sunday, February 10, 2002
Updated: February 11, 12:52 PM ET
Clark's big final run proves to be a golden one

Associated Press

PARK CITY, Utah -- OK, snowboarders, maybe the Olympics really are cool, after all.

Kelly Clark
Kelly Clark, 18, jumped higher than anyone else in the field.

Kelly Clark flew higher and nailed more dangerous tricks than anyone in the halfpipe Sunday to become the first American to take gold at the Salt Lake City Olympics.

"I can't even explain what I'm feeling right now," Clark said.

With rock music blaring over her headphones, she flew, twisted and slid her way down the hollowed-out snow chute in the final run of a thrilling day.

The crowd of 16,500 was the biggest these athletes had ever performed in front of. It was a great day under a crystal-blue sky that might have muted many critics -- in and out of the sport -- who wondered whether snowboarding really belonged in the Olympics.

"Snowboarders have their reputations," Clark said. "But my doing this, especially in the U.S., says a lot. Maybe it will shine a light on snowboarding, and people will look at it in a different way."

Clark's mark of 47.9 easily beat Doriane Vidal of France, who scored a 43.0 to win the silver, the first medal of these Olympics for her country. Fabienne Reuteler of Switzerland won the bronze.

American Shannon Dunn, the bronze medalist in 1998, finished fifth and teammate Tricia Byrnes was sixth.

The 18-year-old Clark won the gold with 30 seconds of drama and tension in which most of the fans were squarely on her side.

Standing at the top of the chute, Clark played it cool, smiling and pumping her fist at the flag-waving fans.

With "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns n' Roses playing over the sound system, Clark cranked up Blink 182's "This is Growing Up" on her headphones and began her golden descent.

Normally, she uses the music to drown out the distractions, but that wasn't possible this time.

"The crowd was going so wild, I could hear them over the headphones," she said.

With every airborne move and perfect twist, things only got louder. When it was over, she glided into the arms of her coach. Once her score was announced, she climbed over a retaining fence to celebrate with friends.

"I wouldn't have thought in a hundred years that I'd be here," said Clark, from Mount Snow, Vt. "At the last Olympics, I was a kid sitting at Mount Snow Academy saying, 'Whatever.' I didn't really think anything of making it here until last season."

She won the event with a pair of jumps, one called a McTwist -- a 540-degree inverted spin -- the other a 720-degree spin at the bottom that she knew she needed to overcome Vidal.

"I figured I had second place wrapped up, so I had to go for it," she said. "I knew I would regret it if I didn't."

Before the big technical tricks, she jumped higher above the lip of the halfpipe than any of her competitors. It's called amplitude, which carries extra weight in the world of Olympic judging, and Clark was up to the task.

"I learned how to go big, to make the airs," Clark said of her formative years in the sport. "It made sense to me that once you have your amplitude down, when you try the tricks, they're a lot easier, because you've got more time to do them."

Clark's victory marked the first gold medal for the United States in Olympic snowboarding, a recreational pastime that has continued growing, thanks to the X-Games phenomenon born in America.

"I think it's awesome," said 19-year-old Danny Kass, among the favorites for gold in the men's halfpipe Monday. "Maybe it'll make them open up a few more resorts for snowboarding."

Indeed, snowboarding has long wrestled with the issue of mainstream acceptance, at the resorts and in the realm of competitive sports.

The International Olympic Committee added snowboarding in 1998 in an attempt to modernize its image. But it was a highly disputed move, and there's still a large faction out there that believes competing in the Olympics isn't true to the individualistic nature of the game.

Clark hopes she helped change that.

"There are two sides of snowboarding, and it's all about personal preference," she said. "But I think it's good for the sport for people to see it this way."

It sure looked different from most Olympic sports Sunday.

In the packed stands, young men painted out "U.S.A." on their bare chests in the subfreezing cold. Before the event, break dancers boogied in the parking lot. A rock band played during intermission.

It was all part of an X-treme day, and even the second-place finisher had to feel good, despite watching Clark win the gold at the last second.

"It was a strange feeling, because I like her," Vidal said. "I was hoping she would do good, because it would be good for the show. I was also hoping she wouldn't beat me. But I'm still happy because I did well."

Of course, winning the gold never comes easy, and it sure wasn't easy for Clark.

She bruised her tailbone after a hard fall in training Thursday, and had to sit out a day and ice it down.

"I was pretty sore, but I had so much adrenaline today, I didn't feel much of anything," she said.