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Monday, February 11, 2002
U.S. men run the table

By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine

PARK CITY, Utah -- Ross Powers' sick fakie-to-forward 720 whipped the crowd into a lather. Danny Kass' "Kass-a-Roll" drove 16,000 people into a throaty roar. And when J.J. Thomas appeared, WWF style, in the huge doorway to the Park City halfpipe, and the thump-thump of AC/DC's Thunderstruck kicked in, the whole place joined in like converts to a cult:

Ross Powers
Ross Powers raises his snowboard high to salute the elated crowd.

"Ah ah ah ah, ah, AH! AH! THUNDER! Ah ah ah ah, ah, AH! AH! THUNDER!"

Welcome to Halfpipe Nation.

American Kelly Clark's good-to-the-last drop gold medal Sunday in the women's halfpipe set the table. Monday, three American men ran the table, becoming just the second American trio in Winter Games history to do so. In two days, snowboarders have gone from a blot in Olympic history books to authors of a thrilling new chapter. And with thousands of disappointed Picabo fans watching the only Games in town from Snowbasin, we could be looking at a population of pipin' hot snowboarding fans hungry for more.

"It's like nothing I've ever experienced," Thomas said. "I hope people see how far snowboarding has come and know it's one of the funnest sports in the world."

"To have the U.S. take top three is amazing," Kelly Clark said. "Having the Games in the U.S. is really going to make an impact. There are going to be a lot more fans, and hopefully a lot more young fans."

Yes, this is the same sport that caused a fury in Nagano for being crude, juvenile, and riddled with pot-smoking teenaged turnoffs. In 1998, a columnist from the Old Grey Lady -- the New York Times -- compared snowboarding athletes to snow monkeys. But there were more than a few old grey ladies on hand today, and they were "stoked."

"This makes me want to try snowboarding," said Sally Suk, 48, from Montana. "Seeing it live doesn't compare with seeing it on TV."

"We filled the stands," Powers said. "Nagano wasn't close to this big."

Now let's face it: the stodgy old standbys we all watch the Olympics for -- Figure Skating, Hockey and Bobsled -- will be hard-pressed to top what came down the pipe in Park City.

There was music. Real music. Boarders skied and spun to tunes ranging from the Jackson Five to Madonna to Metallica. Plump reporters in the mixed zone could be seen tapping their skeptical feet. Boarder Xaver Hoffman of Germany bobbed his noggin to Outkast. Japan's Takaharu Nakai twisted to Nelly's Ride Wit Me.

There were emcees. Gordie and Chris, screaming over the P.A. like Scott Hamilton on Vivarin, unabashedly cheered for every single boarder. When Switzerland's Marcel Hitz finished his mediocre run, he practically got serenaded. "He's so stylish and relaxed," the crowd heard. "That's a feat in itself, Marcel!"

There was Heikki Sorsa of Finland. No helmet for him, thanks. The dude won the fans over with his too-def-to-be-Dep spiked Mohawk. Sorsa pulled a crazy front-side inverted 720 and then blew kisses to the gathering. "Lemme hear you say 'Mohawk!'" yelled our emcee, to the crowd's delight. "He's cool," Suk said.

There was Tuomo Ojala, also of Finland. Snotty and stupid? Hardly. The man majors in math. On the way down the mountain today, he was listening to jazz. "Finnish jazz," Ojala said. "Really good Finnish jazz." And after falling nastily in his qualifying run, Ojala laughed with the press about his "bad" run. "It's not that serious," Ojala said. "The weather is so good."

There were wipeouts. Not fall-on-your-sequined-tushy-and-pop-up-with-a-smile wipeouts. Nasty wipeouts. Ass-blasters. Face-plants. And I-can't-bear-to-watch-the-replay crashes that kicked up a blizzard of powder and a chorus of "Oooooh's."

And there were the American medalists. Powers, who celebrated his 23rd birthday Sunday. Kass, with his matching camouflage headphones and boots, and flashy J.J. Thomas showed why snowboarding is America's fastest growing sport.

"Today was just the perfect day," Powers said. "Awesome pipe and everything. My board was really good, the weather, the crowd, it was amazing."

When Thomas got to the bottom of the hill, and AC/DC trailed into a concluding riff, and the rowdy fans finally exhaled, Gordie chimed in from behind the mike: "The best is yet to come!"

Totally.

Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine.