- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 2010

WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia — American Seth Wescott defended his Olympic title Monday, overtaking Canada’s Mike Robertson to win the gold medal in the wild sport of men’s snowboardcross.

Wescott struggled in qualifying and was seeded 17th out of the 32 riders, but he emerged with his second gold medal — and America’s second of the Winter Olympics.

In the final, Wescott was barely within shouting distance of Robertson. Then, out of nowhere, the 33-year-old snowboarder closed the gap, passed the Canadian and held him off at the finish.

“That kind of gap, most people — well, really, nobody overcomes that,” said America’s snowboard coach, Peter Foley.

Tony Ramoin of France won the bronze, finishing ahead of American Nate Holland, whose spinout about a third of the way down the course set up what looked like would be a breeze for Robertson, an underdog who was going for his country’s second gold medal of the games.

Wescott made up his deficit over a series of five consecutive jumps that can sap speed if not executed correctly.

“I’d made some mistakes in there earlier in the day,” Wescott said. “I knew if I came back and executed it correctly, I could do it. It wasn’t a situation of looking for a miracle at all.”

The crowd, about half Canadian and half American, gasped and cheered. Wescott crossed the finish line and fell to the ground, then draped his country’s flag across his shoulders — the same flag he held four years ago in Turin, the one that was given to his grandfather by the U.S. military.

“That was part of the motivation to get to this moment,” Wescott said. “I brought it so if I got to this moment, I’d have it here.”

The result that was hard to believe — not so much because of Wescott’s history in the sport, but because of his recent form.

Wescott hurt his leg and pelvis at an event two months ago, couldn’t walk for two weeks and came to the Olympics admittedly not riding his best. He was also one of the few riders who acknowledged the conditions at weather-plagued Cypress Mountain — slushy, flat light, inconsistent snow — were crummy.

“You’re pretty much riding blind in there,” he said between qualifying and the finals.

His low seeding meant he had to wear the black vest for the final three races he ran. The top seed gets to wear red, No. 2 blue and No. 3 yellow.

But the man in black, a technician who prides himself on finding the winning paths down any course, won the gold.

He did it by emerging unscathed through four races during which almost anything can, and usually will, happen.

The fastest rider in qualifying, Alex Pullin of Australian, wiped out in the first race.

This year’s top-ranked rider in the World Cup, France’s Pierre Vaultier, got tangled with Canadian Drew Nielson and wiped out.

Last year’s World Cup champion, Markus Shairer, came in with broken ribs and left early after a wipeout.

American Graham Watanabe, who qualified second, got beat in a photo finish and his teammate, Nick Baumgartner, slipped and went sprawling into the netting.

Another Canadian, Francois Boivin, did a somersault and a face plant.

On and on it went until Holland, the American who won his fifth straight Winter X Games last month, made the final mistake — a spinout that knocked Wescott back to third, almost in need of a pair of binoculars to see Robertson, who missed the wreck.

But maybe the message Wescott sent is that snowboardcross, for all its craziness, isn’t so unpredictable after all.

It has been in the Olympics twice, and Wescott has won both times.

The sport was brought to the Olympics in 2006 to inject some life, youth and X Games attitude into the Winter Games. It succeeded so well that the its cousin, skicross, was added this year.

Organizers even got two of the riders, Baumgartner and seventh-place finisher Mario Fuchs, to wear mini-cams on their heads to give TV viewers a first-person view of what it’s like skidding down the hill at 50 kph (30 mph), trading elbows in a constant struggle for position.

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