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Sunday, February 10, 2002
Clark's perfect air puts a lock on gold

By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine

PARK CITY, Utah -- Four years ago, Blink 182 was a fringe group, a woman pulling a front-side 720 was a pipe dream, and Kelly Clark was a high school freshman.

Kelly Clark
Kelly Clark nailed both a McTwist and a front-side 720 in her final run to assure the gold.

Sunday, all those elements came together on a mirror of white snow under clear, blue sky. And America won its first gold.

The odd convergence sure looked like destiny. At just after 2 p.m., Clark (What's her age again?: 18) had Blink 182 screaming in her earphones and thousands more screaming at her as she stood alone at the top of the halfpipe. She was the last to drop, assured of a silver medal but needing the best run of the day for gold. Then the first strains of Guns N' Roses "Welcome to the Jungle" wailed above the crowd. Slash riffed, and Clark was ready to rip.

"You really get moving up there," Clark said. "You have to let go of your fear."

There was plenty to fear. The pipe was smooth and shiny as glass, and the judges were loving big air.

"I was very surprised how much the judges counted amplitude," said American Shannon Dunn-Downing, who finished fifth. "They didn't push the ride too much."

Clark knew it. When the Vermont native dropped into her run, French boarder Doriane Vidal sat comfortably in first with a lofty 43.0 out of 50 -- tops on the day so far. Vidal wooed the judges simply by skying over the pipe and stomping a front-side 720. No one had gotten air like that all day.

But Clark did. She launched into her first jump -- a front-side air -- and held it for what seemed like days. The house knew then she had a shot. Her next trick -- a back-side indy -- also seemed jet-propelled.

Could she nail the McTwist? By then, it seemed obvious she would. And she stomped it. The front-side 720?

"She busted it," Dunn-Downing said. "I don"t know if she even needed it."

Clark made sure. Then she slid across the finish line with both arms raised.

"Was it good enough?!" the emcee screamed over the P.A. system. A pipe-drunk crowd and a weary nation looked longingly at the scoreboard. Only Axl Rose made a sound:

And when you're high you never
Ever want to come down, YEAH!

And there is was: 47.9 overall. A perfect 10.0 in Airs. Gold. Pandemonium.

Four years ago, Kelly Clark couldn't watch Olympic snowboarding. She had class. So she taped it.

Doubtless, this day's events will also make her shelf.

Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine.