United States snowboarders made Olympic history Monday, recording the first sweep in the men's halfpipe, a feat that cements snowboarding's future and is further evidence that America is emerging as a winter sports power.
Ross Powers, 23, of South Londonberry, Vt., won the gold medal with a ride featuring spectacular twists and spins accompanied by huge chunks of hang time while soaring 15 feet above the lip of the halfpipe—what riders call "big air."
Danny Kass, 19, of Hamburg, N.J., perhaps the most inventive halfpipe rider in the world, took the silver. Jarret [J.J.] Thomas, 20, of Golden, Colo, got the bronze. Tommy Czeschin, 22, of Mammoth Lakes, finished sixth.
Afterward, in an emotional reference to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Powers said, "After everything that's happened to us in the States, it's huge....
"To sweep it here, in our country, it's awesome."
The last time the U.S. swept an event in the Winter Games was 1956 when the men's figure skating team, led by Hayes Jenkins, did it in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.
The U.S. now has six medals after three days of competition at these Games. Officials with the U.S. Olympic team predicted Americans would win at least 20 here.
The most Americans have won in a Winter Games is 13, in 1998 at Nagano, Japan, and in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway.
About a dozen years ago, U.S. Olympic officials embarked on a multimillion-dollar program to boost American medal results at the Winter Games—the U.S. was already traditionally strong in the Summer Games—and said they expected the program to start paying off in 2002.
"I wiggled my way up to the finish line so I could watch these kids," U.S. Olympic Committee President Sandra Baldwin said. "We are so proud of them."
The medal sweep by the American men—in concert with a gold won Sunday in the women's halfpipe by American Kelly Clark—has given snowboarding a boost of widespread publicity and reinforced the belief of those who have long said it will become one of the glamour events of the Winter Olympics.
A capacity crowd of at least 16,500 packed Park City Mountain Resort for both the women's and the men's contests. Both events were held in brilliant sunshine, with loud rock music playing over the loudspeakers and a frenetic announcer delivering breathless commentary; the audience cheered loudly and warmly for athletes from all nations, louder still for the Americans. "The crowd was just amazing," Kass said.
The sweep promises to further propel snowboarding into mainstream culture. Only a few savvy businesspeople are already in on the secret that, for example, video games featuring—or endorsed by—star riders translate into millions of dollars in sales.
NBC, intent on tapping into the all-important 18-to-34 market, delayed airing the men's halfpipe competition—which wrapped up Monday about 3:30 p.m.—until prime time.
The results guarantee "mainstream exposure to what's been going on in snowboarding for a long time," said Jake Burton, one of the sport's pioneers. "I don't think there's any sport that is progressing the way this one is."
All three medal winners are hard-working athletes fiercely devoted to the sport and each boasts an engaging personality—the opposite of the stereotype of snowboarders as dope-smoking slackers.
That image can be traced in part to the 1998 Winter Games, when Ross Regabliati of Canada tested positive for marijuana after winning gold in snowboarding slalom racing. He ultimately got to keep the medal—officials ruling there were no grounds to take it away—but the incident lent credibility to the image of snowboarders as potheads.
"I don't do drugs," Kass said Monday on his way to be tested. "Drugs are bad."
After he won, Powers—who months back launched a foundation aimed at helping underprivileged athletes—patiently and graciously signed autographs for anyone who asked. He signed tickets, vests, flags—anything. And when fans said, "Thank you," he said, "You're welcome." On his way out of the stadium, he threw his goggles to a kid who had asked for them.
"Everybody loves snowboarding, and when you see a good show—wow!" Thomas said. Just moments before, after his mother, Susan, and his stepfather, Bob Ransome, told him how thrilled they were for him, he confided that he was happy but nonetheless hoped he hadn't disappointed them by finishing third.
"Sorry I sketched," he told them, using snowboarding lingo that means "wasn't perfect."
Kass, who trains in Mammoth Lakes, also had a cheering section. He frequently travels with a crew of other young men and they can be loud while trying incessantly to be funny. On Monday, that meant bringing a blow-up doll (male version) to the stands. "The team manager," Kass joked.
But right next to his pals were 14 Kass relatives—Danny's father, Craig; his stepmother, Lore; his mother; Joanne Thiem; a grandmother, Irma Braunig, whom he calls "Oma"; and various cousins, nieces and nephews. The whole scene looked like something out of a Saturday morning youth soccer game.
Kevin Casillo, one of Kass' friends, said the medals "shows how serious [U.S. snowboarders] are," adding, "These colors don't run."
Kass came into the event as the clear favorite. He won all of last season's major snowboarding events, the U.S. Open, Grand Prix, and X Games.
Kass' strength lies in what riders call "progression," the acrobatic and gymnastic skills required to execute increasingly complicated tricks. For example, he executed three complete spins while airborne and landed cleanly—what's called a "1080"—as part of his routine on Monday.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times