American grabs gold in snowboardcross
BARDONECHHIA, Italy – Jason Smith said if anyone was to win a gold medal besides himself, he hoped it would be his teammate, Seth Wescott.
Wescott broke free to win each of his four runs Thursday during the inaugural Olympic snowboardcross event in Bardonechhia, Italy.
Wescott, who hails from Farmington, Maine, had to fight to the finish in his final run, racing behind Slovakia’s Radoslav Zidek until three-quarters of the way down when he whipped ahead around a bank turn and held his lead just barely across the finish line.
“I just knew if I was patient and confident I’d reach the part of the course that I could work a little better,” Wescott said. “Coming into that one turn, I dove the inside line on him like clockwork.”
Zidek ended up with the silver medal while France’s Paul-Henri Delerue took bronze. Smith finished sixth while American Nate Holland finished 14th.
“No one else would I rather have on that podium besides myself,” Smith said of Wescott. “Seth is a veteran of the snowboardcross team, and making that pass, making it that exciting for all the spectators and the people back home, is awesome. I came in here definitely looking for gold. But I’m happy I ended up sixth.”
All four Americans, including Graham Watanabe, who was filling in for injured Jason Hayle, advanced to the quarterfinal heats Thursday.
Smith, like Wescott, ran away with his first two runs in Thursday’s final heats, breaking out of the gate to find the first hole and holding his lead through to the finish.
Watanabe was the first to go down on the highly technical course, which began with a series of closely placed table tops and continued into narrow, banked turns and finished off with two huge, slopestyle-sized jumps.
“This course is real active, there’s not a lot of places to generate speed,” Smith said. “The roller sections are real quick. You just have to roll through it.”
Unlike the previous semifinal heats, 24-year-old Smith didn’t get the first break at the start and was wedged into third place. He fought into second for a split second, his snowboard bumping against those of other racers. He made his way around a couple of curves but lost the inside position and was pushed back into third. His small finals heat ran similarly, but Smith found areas to generate speed and fought Australian Damon Hayler into second place to nab the sixth-place overall result.
Smith said the Olympic course made this year’s Winter X Games course look easy.
“There’s a lot more action in this course versus this year’s X Games,” he said. “X Games is a great event. It was great to be there. I think this year’s X Games course was a little mellow. They knew they had some Olympians coming in. That’s fine with me.”
While the X Games are much closer to home for Smith, who lives in Basalt, he said the atmosphere at the Olympics exceeds even that of boardercross’s premiere event.
“At the X Games, you have this big a crowd, but it’s for the whole X Games – for all the events,” Smith said. “Everybody (at the Olympics) is here to watch snowboardcross, and that’s amazing.”
A few reality checks have been in order for Smith since arriving in Torino and training for his first Olympic event.
“I think after the Olympics, people will have a better idea of what it is,” he said. “The whole world will have a better idea. With Seth on the podium, coming back to the U.S, we’ll get a little more recognition. Hopefully we’ll get some more events in the U.S., which would be great.”
“It’s such a trip,” he said of competing in SBX in the Olympics. “Because I’m out here doing what I do every day. And last night was probably the most nervous I’ve been for a race ever, just thinking, ‘Wow. I’m at the Olympics.’ It’s what I’ve been dreaming of for so long.”
Sharing the experience with his teammates and compatriots in other sports is what Smith said has been the best part of his Olympic experience.
“Being in the athletes’ village and meeting some of the other athletes has been great,” he said. “I’m part of the U.S. Snowboard Team, but you come here and you’re part of the U.S. Olympic Team. You watch them on TV and cheer and you’re a part of it. It goes from being a six-person team to … however many we all are.”
The crowd for the debut of Olympic snowboardcross Thursday was livelier than any other Olympic mountain-area event so far. Despite the obvious interest in the sport, clearly there were few who had ever seen a boardercross event or even knew what one was. Smith said he had been in a position of explaining his sport to many people, but he feels that will change now.