Two Gold Medals for United States in Olympic Opening Weekend

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The U.S. won two gold medals over the weekend, but it also had some disappointments. Figure skating star Michelle Kwan withdrew from the Games and the Americans failed to gain any medals in the men's downhill.

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The United States won three gold medals in the first three days of competition at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. The American team has had some success in speed skating and snowboarding events, but there have been some disappointments too.

NPR's Chris Arnold reports from Turin.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

Yesterday in the Snowboard Halfpipe competition, the gold medal went to the Flying Tomato, or Il Pomadoro Vilante(ph), if you prefer Italian. That's what snowboard fans call 19-year-old Shaun White, who looks a bit like a much younger Mick Jagger, with long, flowing red hair.

The crowd cheered as White took his final run.

The snowboarders in this event pick up speed going down one wall of the Halfpipe, then go flying up the other side to do aerial tricks. Spinning 360 degrees is no big deal in snowboarding. These guys do 720's and 1080's. They flip upside down, grabbing their boards in a sport where the tricks have name like the Slob, the Stale Fish and the Nose grab.

You can see why they call White the Flying Tomato. He does fly, soaring 20 feet in the air above the Halfpipe, much higher than most of the other snowboarders. After winning the gold, White said he was stoked.

On a different mountainside, not far away, the gold medal went to France. In the big glamour event of the weekend, Antoine Deneriaz roared down the course to a surprise win in the men's downhill race, upsetting U.S. hopeful Daron Rahlves and the powerful Austrian skiers.

The Frenchman was the 30th skier down the hill, a disadvantage because the course is all carved up with ruts and harder to ski. But Deneriaz had an inspired run.

Mr. ANTOINE DENERIAZ (French Downhill Skier): (French spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Okay, English please...

Mr. DENERIAZ: (Through translator) It was a long, long run for me. Of course I was at the starting gate and I was telling myself, do it, do it, do it. And that's what I've been telling myself all week long. And I went and I attacked, I attacked...

ARNOLD: Down in the city of Turin, the first gold medal for the U.S. was won by speed skater Chad Hedrick.

Mr. CHAD HEDRICK (United States Speed Skater): I'm having the time of my life out here. This is my first Olympics, I win my first race.

ARNOLD: Hedrick, who is from Texas, actually came out of the more obscure world of inline skating, where athletes race on what most people call rollerblades. He has a reputation for being brash, even cocky, proclaiming he will win gold medals, but Hedrick admits the pressure here before the games was getting to him. He says he's been too stressed out to sleep, tossing and turning, anxious over all kinds of details, like were his skates sharp enough.

His first race was on the anniversary of his grandmother's death, and he says he was thinking about her while warming up.

Mr. HEDRICK: And just looking around, and the crowd, and you know, just 28 years working to be here and participate in the Olympics. And it finally happened, and I broke down during warm up and I actually started crying, and I had to go up in the stands and actually give my family a hug and get rid of the tears.

ARNOLD: One athlete that could use a hug herself is Michelle Kwan. In one of the biggest developments of the Olympics, the world famous figure skater announced she had injured her groin muscle during practice and pulled out of the games.

Ms. MICHELLE KWAN (United States Figure Skater): I had to make a decision to withdraw from the team. And you know, I would love to compete, but I love and respect this sport and I think it's all about the United States bringing their best team to the Olympic Games, and I wouldn't want to be in the way of that.

ARNOLD: Kwan's spot on the team will be filled by Emily Hughes, who took third place at last month's National Championship.

Today in Turin the U.S. Women's Snowboard Team matched the men's performance in the Halfpipe competition. Hannah Teter won the gold, and Gretchen Bleiler took silver. But in yet another possible blow for the U.S. team, top skier and medal hopeful Lindsay Kildow suffered a bad crash on a training run on the women's downhill course. She was taken by helicopter to a nearby hospital. Team officials say nothing is broken, though Kildow is complaining of back pain. Kildow is the number two ranked downhill skier in the world, and is entered in all five Alpine events.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Turin.

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