Americans complete 1-2 punch

Teter claims gold in halfpipe

Bleiler places 2nd, Clark 4th

Snowboarding

Winter Olympics

February 14, 2006|By PETE THOMAS | PETE THOMAS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BARDONECCHIA, Italy -- It was such a beautiful Monday afternoon that snowboarders Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler caught a lift up the mountain to do a little free riding.

The halfpipe final they had qualified for, at the bottom of the hill, was only 20 minutes away.

But taking a few powder turns beyond the bustle surrounding the venue - even if they got lost and had to illegally pass under the boundary ropes to make it back in time - turned out to be just what they needed.

The beautiful afternoon, amid the towering Alps and beneath a bright blue sky, became the most glorious day of their athletic careers.

Teter, 19, looking carefree, soared and spun gracefully to a triumph worthy of an Olympic gold medal.

Bleiler, 24, smiling and raising her arms to rev the crowd before each of her runs, put together a beautiful routine near the end of the competition to claim the silver.

"It was an absolutely unbelievable day today," said Bleiler, who barely missed qualifying for the 2002 Olympics at Salt Lake City. "The Olympics and medaling at the Olympics has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl, and I worked so hard to get where I am and it's an unbelievable feeling."

The powerful U.S. team's chance to sweep the medals, a goal many said would be realized, fell short as Kelly Clark, the gold medalist in 2002, was edged for the bronze by Kjersti Buaas of Norway.

"I never thought it was possible," said Buaas, who finished fourth at the Salt Lake City Olympics. "They said [I was] the last European against the Americans and I thought, `The whole of Europe is depending on me.' I tried to go big and I came down and I was second and was, like - `What?' - and I couldn't believe it. I was really, really happy."

After the first round of qualifying, it looked as though a U.S. sweep - something the men's halfpipe team accomplished in 2002 - was imminent. Clark posted the top score of 44.9 out of a possible 50, followed by Bleiler's 41.6 and Teter's 39.9. By finishing in the top six they automatically advanced to the final.

(The fourth member of the U.S. team, Elena Hight, 16, advanced to the final on her second qualifying run and eventually finished sixth.) Teter and Bleiler then embarked on their powder search and when asked after the competition why they had taken such a risk - especially by venturing out of bounds - Bleiler reminded reporters what sport they were covering.

"That's what snowboarding is all about," she said. "It's not about sticking to a routine. This is what snowboarding is all about."

As for the routines performed within and above the 18-foot walls of the 450-foot U-shaped halfpipe, there were good ones and bad ones, the worst being that of Japan's Melo Imai, who smacked her board and body into the lip of the pipe, then slid down in a heap. She was airlifted to a Turin hospital with a shoulder injury.

In the 12-woman final, where the riders kept the best of two scores, Teter, Bleiler and Clark maintained their 1-2-3 status after the first round.

Teter, of Belmont, Vt., drew roars from the audience with a near-flawless routine that included a frontside 540-degree rotation, two rocketing board-grab aerials, a frontside 900 and a Cab 540 (performed switch-stanced, or backward).

In the second round, Buaas had moved into second with 42.0, knocking Clark from third to fourth, but Bleiler responded with a 43.4 to move back into second, pushing Buaas into third.

Clark, on her final run, looked to be making a high-flying charge for the gold but she fell on her last maneuver - a frontside 900 - and ended her chance for medals in consecutive Olympics.

Pete Thomas writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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