Tuesday, February 19, 2002
Hometown hero fills medal void for Americans
PARK CITY, Utah -- Win or lose. First or last. All or nothing.
Eric Bergoust figured those were the only acceptable options when he stood atop the hill and stared down the final jump Tuesday, the one that would determine gold, silver and bronze in the Olympic freestyle aerials.
Bergoust went for it, all right. He sped too fast down the runway. He flew too high over the ramp. He landed on his back.
The defending Olympic champion finished 12th out of 12. Dead last.
It was a performance every bit as stunning as the revolutionary quintuple-twist Ales Valenta of the Czech Republic nailed to win the gold, or the two great jumps hometown hero Joe Pack hit to take silver. Alexei Grichin of Belarus won bronze.
Bergoust, the defending Olympic gold medalist, said he was disappointed, of course, but happy he took a chance.
"I'm glad I didn't go out there and go conservative and finish fourth," he said. "I wanted to get the gold or last, and I got last."
Bergoust might not have felt the same pressure on the final jump were it not for Valenta, the daredevil Czech who decided to try the quintuple-twisting, triple backflip. He did it even though he had practiced it only sparingly on snow, and knew the odds of landing it were slim.
Much like moguls skier Jonny Moseley did on the same hill a week ago with his famed Dinner Roll jump, Valenta tried the quint twist in part to shake up the sport, and even more to make himself happy.
But while Moseley came in fourth, Valenta walked away a winner.
"I wasn't worried about winning, or making the podium or finishing fifth," Valenta said. "I didn't really care. For me, the most important thing was to jump good. Have a good, solid landing. I never was thinking about going for gold."
Bergoust had tinkered with the quint-twist, too, but he didn't like his form, didn't find the jump reliable. So he fell back on what had worked for years -- the quadruple-twist he won gold with in Nagano.
He's the most consistent jumper in the world with that trick, and he knew he would have to be perfect on the last jump of the day. Valenta had a two-jump score of 257.02 and Bergoust needed a 126.65 on his final jump.
A perfectionist who can analyze his jumps while he's in the air, Bergoust knew he was doomed from the moment he took off. "I said to myself, `I'm probably not going to land this, no matter what I do,"' he said.
He was right.
At the top of the hill, he knew he had to go for it, and knew he would need good speed down the runway that leads to the ramp. So, he started a little farther up the hill than normal.
He sped down the hill, bending his knees as he approached the ramp for takeoff. To the casual fan, his jump looked like most of them do -- fluid, graceful, linear. But the excess speed made him fly too high. And rotate too fast. When he stuck his arms out to his side to slow down the twists, he didn't slow as fast as he needed.
That led to the dreaded experience that aerialists call "slapback" -- falling backward and slamming your back on the ground upon landing.
"I really had to risk it," he said. "And sometimes when you risk it, it doesn't work."
Even before his score was posted, a paltry 88.11, Bergoust looked dazed and shocked. American aerials coach Matt Christensen stood at the top of the hill and dropped his head in disgust. The crowd, which moments earlier had been going crazy for Pack, went almost silent.
Valenta hugged his coaches, knowing he had won the gold. He was as surprised as anyone on the mountain.
"I knew I did two good jumps and I was wishing for Eric that he could do two good jumps," Valenta said. "I was surprised he couldn't land it. I'm sorry for him. But that's part of the sport, as well."
Pack's silver medal was the classic case of Hometown Boy Makes Good. He played football and soccer for Park City High School, and the crowd that came to watch him made the mountain feel like a pep rally.
They screamed "Go Joe Pack," "Go Joe Pack," before his second jump, and when he landed it they roared. He scored a 122.15 to bring his total to 251.64, in second place with two jumps left.
Grichin went next, and when he stumbled a bit on his landing and was in third, the crowd went wild again, knowing their guy had clinched a spot on the podium.
"It's something that, since I moved here, it's been in the works," Pack said. "I can't describe the feeling of the crowd, how much you feel the energy."
It was a perfect ending for Pack, but a less-than-fulfilling finish for his teammates. American Brian Currutt finished sixth and teammate Jeret Peterson ninth.
Meanwhile, Bergoust's shocking bust meant the American freestyle team would leave the Olympics with three silver medals in four events.
That's not as good as the three golds they won at the last Olympics (Bergoust, Moseley and aerialist Nikki Stone), but better than the single bronze they earned at World Championships last year with Pack.
"It was a little bit surprising," American freestyle coach Jeff Wintersteen said. "It's gutwrenching because of what Eric means to this team. But with one jump left and a chance to get two on the podium today, there's still nobody else I'd rather have up there than Bergy."