White flips past competition on first run
COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. -- His signature red hair poking out from his helmet, Shaun White reached the bottom of a typically brilliant trip down the halfpipe, thrust his hands in the air and tilted his head back.
He admitted he was nervous beforehand and relieved afterward -- two emotions you might not expect from the world's best snowboarder.
The defending Olympic champion re-established himself Saturday as the man to beat, winning the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix -- the first key event on the road to Vancouver Games.
White edged out Louie Vito of "Dancing with the Stars" fame -- and overall Grand Prix champion the last two years -- 47.0-45.6 and joined 2002 gold medalist Kelly Clark on the winner's stand, after Clark beat Turin silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler.
The days when snowboarders tried to play down the Olympics are long over, and White is proof positive of that.
"This whole past season, I've been thinking about this," White said. "It's not so much getting the nerves out, it's the anxious feeling. It's waiting. Hours kind of stretch into days. You say, `I can't wait for this event to happen."
Those who haven't seen the halfpipe in four years will come back to a sport that has gotten bigger in many ways.
The newest combination of tricks are back-to-back double-corking jumps -- two straight twisting double back flips -- and it appears the gold medal in Vancouver will go to whoever does that best.
The halfpipe itself is bigger, too -- after being enlarged by 4 feet to 22 feet high on the sides.
White has extra tricks up his sleeve, as well. He crammed a sixth jump into his winning 493-foot ride down the pipe where most riders get five.
"He baffles me every time he rides with that sixth spin," Vito said. "I'm like, `How does he do that?"
White awed the judges in qualifying Friday, en route to a score of 49.5 -- only .5 short of perfect.
"I was trying to get a 52 today, but I don't know that that was gonna happen," he joked. "But I'm excited. I'm feeling like all my stuff's aligning and I'm going to start doing what I do now. Just get up and ride, not worry about it."
Copper Mountain was the first of five events that will be used to pick three men and women for the U.S. halfpipe team. The next two are in Mammoth, Calif., next month.
By winning, White and Clark virtually guarantee themselves spots -- hard to come by in the country that invented snowboarding and has won 10 of the 18 medals since halfpipe was introduced to the Olympics in 1998.
"In this sport, your opponent can't harm you," said Scotty Lago, who finished 14th after falling on both his double-cork jumps. "It's not a football game where they come to defend you. When it's your turn to go, it's your turn to go and it's your time. You've got to be ready."
But not everybody was on a cold day with light snow falling. Twenty-four riders made a total of 47 runs, and only 19 of those were completed without a fall.
Bleiler, who bit it on her first run but recovered on the second, didn't think conditions had much to do with it.
"I think it was more, the first contest of the season and a lot of pressure," she said. "There's a lot on the line."
Clark fell on her second run, but that was after she had followed back-to-back 500s with a frontside 900 as part of a run worth 44.5 that stood up for the win. On the bottom, she had a fresh cut under her eye from where her goggles scratched her and was checking her mouth to make sure all her teeth were in place.
She has her Olympic gold, has been to the Games twice, but doesn't think it's crazy to still be doing this at 26 -- an adult in a sport originally envisioned for kids.
"I've been working really hard on the fitness side of things this season, really preparing mentally, physically, every way I can," she said. "I'm feeling stronger, more motivated than ever. I'm feeling better at this point in the season than I've ever been."
SHREDSDefending Olympic champion Hannah Teter withdrew from the event after dislocating her shoulder during practice. She said it was only minor and expected to be back soon. ... Kevin Pearce and Mason Aguirre, two riders considered contenders for an Olympic spot, each failed to qualify for the final.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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