- Associated Press - Friday, February 7, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - It sounded like a prank, if Torah Bright’s friends can be honest.

When the defending Olympic halfpipe champion announced a year ago she was planning for an unprecedented snowboarding triple in Sochi, it seemed a little overly ambitious, even for Australia’s answer to Shaun White.

Halfpipe, slopestyle and snowboardcross in the same Olympics?

“I thought it was a joke at first,” Canadian snowboarder Mercedes Nicoll said. “Then I saw her with her boardercross boards and I was like ‘What are you doing?’ and she just said ‘Oh, just keeping busy.’”

It doesn’t seem so funny now, not with Bright already assured of a berth in the women’s slopestyle final on Sunday and spots in halfpipe and snowboardcross awaiting her later in the Games.

It’s not unusual for snowboarders to crisscross between slopestyle and halfpipe. White was planning on competing in both before a jammed wrist and concerns about course safety forced him to bail on slopestyle 18 hours before the sport made its Olympic debut.

But this is different. If halfpipe is art and slopestyle is music, where artistic impression and imagination are paramount, snowboardcross is MMA fighting - the place to let your id run loose as you hurtle down the mountain alongside five others desperate to beat you to the finish line.

Ask her why she’s taking on all three at once and not just saving snowboardcross for the time in her life when halfpipe and slopestyle have lost their allure and the 27-year-old Australian turns philosophical.

“It’s an Olympic journey done my way,” Bright said. “It’s been a year of self-exploration. I had to challenge myself more than I ever have on my snowboard, mentally and physically switching between three disciplines.”

For Bright, this isn’t about ego, or brand building. This isn’t even about showing older brother Ben - who serves as her coach and dared her to pull off the triple - that she can do it.

This is about pushing boundaries, most of them internal.

Since the chilly February night four years ago when she left Cypress Mountain with a gold medal around her neck, she’s been married and divorced, dealt with concussion-like symptoms that lingered for months and tried to figure out where to go next with her life.

The answer: anywhere she wanted.

“I was having people tell me, ‘Why bother? Just go back and defend your gold medal,’” she said. “Snowboarding to me isn’t about the accolades. It isn’t about competing. I do it because I love to snowboard, not because I love to compete.”

It’s a testament to her talent that she remains a contender in halfpipe and slopestyle despite limiting her time in both over the last year to focus on snowboardcross.

She trounced the field - including top American Kelly Clark - in a halfpipe event in Colorado in December. She ended up second in her slopestyle qualifying on Thursday with a score that could have gone higher if the moment required.

Yet the odds of leaving Sochi with three golds are slim. Her best snowboardcross finish is an eighth in a World Cup event last month. For all her remarkable athleticism, she’s still learning how to deal with the unpredictable nature of racing alongside someone else.

She doesn’t really care. If she doesn’t reach the podium, so what? While Bright understands the burden White faces while trying to win gold in the third straight Olympics, she just doesn’t feel it herself.

Press her on if she considered following White’s lead and focusing on her strengths instead of risking failure, she laughs.

“No way,” she said. “I’m going to have a hell of a time.”

And that’s the point.

Long before competitions and sponsors and physics-defying flips, Bright was just an Aussie kid who wanted to get on her board to let loose.

Nicoll, who has known Bright for years, calls her good friend “a snowboarder to the T.”

One who refuses to be limited by outside expectations.

Maybe she’ll bookend her gold in halfpipe. Maybe she’ll wash out in qualifying. It doesn’t really matter. She spent the days leading up to Vancouver - where she carried the Australian flag during opening ceremonies - worrying so much about trying to win she briefly lost a sense of herself.

It returned when she went splat during her first run in finals. She had all of 10 minutes to regroup. The pep talk came on the chair ride back to the top of the pipe, when she told herself to just let it go.

Moments later she was soaring to glory, then clasping her hands over her mouth in disbelief when she saw her parents in the stands after they stunned their youngest daughter with a last-second surprise trip to Vancouver.

They’re not expected to be there when Bright takes the next step of her busy fortnight in the slopestyle finals. That’s fine. Last time it was about family. This time, it’s about her solitary pursuit of joy.

“I call it character building,” she said. “It’s a chance for the inner Torah to come out.”

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