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White Blazes Trail to Turin

Riding at a high level, the halfpipe specialist will find out in the next few days who will join him on the U.S. team at the Olympics.

January 20, 2006|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

The Flying Tomato has dazzled like never before this winter, chasing his Olympic dream, crushing the competition en route to his early berth on the U.S. snowboard team.

Finally, the freckle-faced redhead otherwise known as Shaun White will learn who will accompany him to Italy -- or, as noteworthy, who will be left behind.

"Shaun has been riding at a level a bit higher than everybody else," said Bud Keene, coach of the halfpipe team. "He used to be good and he still looked like one of the best, but he's dominating right now."

White qualified more than a month ago, using an array of difficult maneuvers as high as 20 feet above the halfpipe walls to win the first two Grand Prix events at Breckenridge, Colo. For good measure he claimed the third qualifier at Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, and today and Saturday at Mountain Creek, N.J., he'll try to conclude a five-event sweep.

Afterward, the halfpipe, snowboardcross and parallel giant slalom squads will be announced.

Among others probably bound for next month's Winter Olympics at Turin: Mason Aguirre in men's halfpipe; Gretchen Bleiler and Hannah Teter in women's halfpipe; Lindsey Jacobellis, Nate Holland, Jason Smith and Seth Wescott in snowboard cross, and Michelle Gorgone and Rosey Fletcher in parallel giant slalom.

There are 16 spots available. Eight -- four men and four women -- are expected to be used for halfpipe because the U.S. is strongest in that discipline.

Surprisingly, the stars of the 2002 Winter Games at Salt Lake City Games have been upstaged by younger riders and will be hard-pressed to qualify.

Bronze medalist J.J. Thomas, ninth in the standings, probably needs to win both qualifiers to make the team. Silver medalist Danny Kass, who was expected to contend for the gold at Turin, is seventh and may also need two triumphs. Gold-medalist Ross Powers is fourth and needs at least to remain there to become the first snowboarder to compete in three Olympics.

"If Shaun keeps winning it'll only help me because he'll be taking first-place points away from the others," said Powers, 26, who won the bronze in 1998, when snowboarding made its Olympic debut at Nagano, Japan. "I probably need at least another top five."

In halfpipe, the two best results are used to determine an athlete's final standing.

If form holds, the men's team will be all Burton Snowboards riders: White, Aguirre, Danny Davis and Powers.

The top four women are Bleiler, Teter, Elena Hight and Tricia Byrnes. The 2002 gold medalist, Kelly Clark, missed the first two qualifiers because of injury and is seventh.

"Thus far, it has been quite a youngsters' show," Keene said.

Aguirre, 18, a three-time X Games competitor from Mammoth Lakes, is more seasoned but Davis, 17, a product of Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, has been groomed for stardom. Both have spent considerable time riding with the world's best -- practicing during our summer in wintry New Zealand -- and have polished routines that include variations of 900- and 1080-degree spins, which will be keys to success at the Turin Games.

"It's not a surprise, but it is pretty remarkable to see them in those positions," Keene said. "They have the talent, the skill and the moves, but what typically lacks in a kid that age is the confidence to pull it off under pressure."

Powers thrives under pressure and believes he has come up with a routine that will carry him over the final qualifying hurdles.

"It's been a great run so far so whatever happens, happens," he said. "But it would be a dream to go a third time. I'd love to have one more shot and maybe get a chance to help some of the younger guys along the way."

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