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White Sweeps Way Into Olympics

January 23, 2006|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

An agent for one of the halfpipe riders trying to qualify for the Olympics commented recently, "They might as well just give Shaun White the gold medal now and have everybody else compete for the silver and bronze."

White, 19, who Sunday concluded an unprecedented sweep of all five U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix events, would seem to be the United States' best hope to strike gold in the Winter Games next month at Turin, Italy.

But Danny Kass provides an element White does not: Olympic experience and a silver medal he won while a member of the team that swept all medals in 2002 at Salt Lake City.

Kass, 23, whose best finish was fourth coming into the last two qualifiers at Mountain Creek, N.J., was second Friday, and those two results turned out to be enough for him to secure his second Olympic berth.

After learning Sunday that he had made the team, the Mammoth Lakes resident proclaimed himself happy to "finally be on the road to where I wanted to be going."

Kelly Clark, 22, another Mammoth Lakes resident who earned gold as a member of the women's Olympic team in 2002, also rallied to secure a ticket to Italy.

In White and Kass the U.S. has two of the world's most dynamic and progressive halfpipe riders; both are able to incorporate varying 1080- and 900-degree spins into routines performed as high as 20 feet above the halfpipe walls.

Also qualifying for the four-man squad were Mason Aguirre and Andy Finch. Ross Powers and J.J. Thomas, the gold- and bronze-medal winners in 2002, fell short in their bids to make the team.

"It's nice having Danny because he's been there and he'll be able to help me and the other guys deal with the pressure," said Aguirre, 18, a budding star from Mammoth Lakes.

The entire U.S. snowboard team was announced Sunday. Qualifying in order for a powerful women's halfpipe team were Gretchen Bleiler, Hannah Teter, Elena Hight and Clark.

"Clearly the four men and four women are right at the top and some of the strongest snowboarders in the world," said Bud Keene, coach of the halfpipe squad. "To boot they have their own unique strengths to go with a well-rounded style, so we should be able to give the judges what they want to see, and probably a lot more."

Representing the U.S. men in snowboard cross, a wild and sometimes spectacular four-on-four downhill speed race making its Olympic debut, will be Jayson Hale, Nate Holland, Jason Smith and Seth Wescott.

The only woman on the squad is Lindsey Jacobellis, the 2005 world champion and the prohibitive favorite to win the gold.

Jacobellis, 20, of Stratton, Vt., failed in her bid to also qualify for the halfpipe team but expressed mild relief at being able to focus on one discipline.

Named to the parallel giant slalom team were Tyler Jewell, Rosey Fletcher and Michelle Gorgone.

Because all but the halfpipe qualifying had been completed before the weekend, the Grand Prix halfpipe events at Mountain Creek held center stage.

White defeated Kass on Friday and blitzed the field Sunday morning with a run in which he linked a huge Indy air to a corked backside 900 to a front-side 1080 to a Cab 1080 to a front-side 900, and finished with a McTwist.

In layman's terms, the Carlsbad athlete spun himself silly and somehow managed to maintain his poise. That has been his way for the last five weeks, leading some to wonder whether he might be peaking too soon.

White quickly dismissed this notion, saying, "It's been a fun ride, but it's not over yet."

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