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BILL PLASCHKE

Wrapped in the flag of his family

The American flag Seth Wescott draped himself in after his last-to-first gold-medal run in men's snowboard cross is a thread connecting three generations of his family.

February 16, 2010|Bill Plaschke

From Vancouver, Canada — He lunged forward, dived ahead, twisting his body and board down the snowy banks of Cypress Mountain, skidding into gold.

And then Seth Wescott reached back.

Back to a grandfather who taught him about patriotism, a father who taught him about strength, an heirloom that will connect them forever.

Did you see the size of that American flag Wescott draped around his chilled body after winning his second consecutive gold medal in the men's snowboard cross Monday?

It's not just big. It's three generations big. It's family big.

It's the flag that was given to his grandfather Ben as a reward for service in the Army during World War II.

It's the flag that was handed down to his father, Jim, upon Ben's death 22 years ago.

It's the flag that Jim brought to Seth after the victory four years ago in Turin, Italy, the old man leaping over a barrier and rushing past the cops to give the kid a piece of his past.

It's the flag that Seth packed for this Olympic trip, part of his equipment now, as important as a board or helmet, the itinerary for his dream.

"I brought it, I boxed it, I carried it here myself," he said. "I told my dad I'm going to need it at the finish line . . . it was a pretty powerful moment."

Then imagine the intensity of pulling it out of that box late Monday afternoon after coming back from last place in the four-man championship race to literally leap past Canada's Mike Robertson three jumps from the finish and slide to victory by less than a board.

Imagine dozens of Canadian flags being flapped by the roaring crowd at the finish line in anticipation of a local gold. Imagine them all suddenly stopping, dwarfed by the thick whip-whip-whip of Wescott's giant Stars and Stripes.

Said Seth: "Pretty amazing."

Said his father, fighting back tears: "That flag now means more than it meant to my father, it means more than it meant to me. That flag is now a link to our entire family."

Sometimes that's how it works here, you know? Even amid million-dollar athletes competing for 15 commercial-packed minutes of fame, sometimes the Olympics really are still about a country and a flag and a family.

A gray Monday filled with scraggly hair and torn blue jeans was one of those times, a funky sport showing that even cool dudes can dig their roots.

When asked where he won the race, Wescott said he had no idea. When asked how it felt to pass Robertson on that late jump, he seemed unaware it even happened then.

When asked about his family and his flag, well, that was different.

"I ran into them on the way into the venue," he said excitedly. "So much of our competitive lives is away and traveling, to be able to compete in front of them is amazing."

They all climbed over barriers once again to hug them. They all talked their way past guards to sit in the back row of the news conference.

Maybe it's because, at age 33, Wescott becomes the oldest Olympian to medal in snowboard, and with that experience comes perspective.

"He understands the importance of family and what it can do for you," said his sister, Sarah.

Maybe it's because he's so laid-back, he doesn't ride hard every race. Teammate Graham Watanabe calls him "an enigma."

"My grandfather, my father, my brother, they are all such sweet, gentle men," Sarah said.

Or maybe he acts nonchalant because if he seriously examined his situation Monday -- last place with less than a minute to make it up -- he would go crazy.

I mean, it looked as if he were done. Even after he took advantage of U.S. teammate Nate Holland's race-ending skid, even after he passed France's Tony Ramoin on a leap, it looked as if he were done.

Watching the giant TV screen from the bottom of the hill, several thousand Canadian fans thought he was done, their cowbells and horns blaring as their countrymen opened up a seemingly big lead and then -- whoosh! -- Wescott leaped past him and slid to that flag.

"In this sport, it's never over," reminded Holland, who finished fourth. "[Seth] has the ability to realize he is in fourth place and understand what he needs to do to get into first."

In this game, that is the measure of a champion, the guy who can win with snow on his butt and a lump in his throat.

That was Wescott, apparently never realizing he was inches away from ignominy, always figuring he was just moments away from victory.

"You look at him in fourth place -- and you can see where that gold medal is," Holland said.

You could look at Seth Wescott afterward and you could see where his heart was, in a flag strong enough to twice protect a winter champion, a flag big enough for three.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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