Snowboarder Rides 'The Zone' to a Gold Medal
Alpine Skiing, Speed Skating Events Also Marked by Drama

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Feb. 11, 2002 -- Though marketers foster the perception "that every kid on a snowboard chugs Mountain Dew and 'could care less about anything, dude," many riders are quiet, hard working athletes who even get nervous before big competitions," reports NPR's Tom Goldman. And that, he says, is why Kelly Clark stood at the top of 525-foot-long, U-shaped halfpipe snowboard run on yesterday "and did what she always does: cranked up the song playing in her headphones."

Kelly Clark on snowboard

Kelly Clark flies past the scoreboard during snowboard halfpipe competition.
Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited

Says Clark: "Every time before I drop into the pipe, I turn up my mini-disc and I try not to pay attention to what's going on around me. When I'm more relaxed, I ride better; so if I'm kind of in my own zone, it's like any other day for me. And the crowd was going wild, I could even hear 'em over my head phones" (on which the 18-year-old was listening to "This is Growing Up," by Blink 182).

As Goldman reports for Morning Edition, the music and the cheering must have done the trick: Clark took off smiling on her second and final run of the day. With a silver medal guaranteed, Clark traversed the snow-covered halfpipe with confidence, Goldman says: "She got tremendous height as she flew up the side of the pipe and into the air, and performed difficult spins and flips with names like 540 Front-Side Grab and McTwist With an Indy Grab."

On the basis of that performance, the judges moved Clark ahead of reigning world champion Doriane Vidal of France -- and the United States won its first gold medal of these winter Olympics. Clark's reaction: "It's great to have all the people here today and especially all the young girls that are hopefully snowboarders as well. And hopefully I can be somewhat of maybe a hero or role model for them. It's cool to have an impact on someone's life like that."

Elsewhere at the Salt Lake site, there were dramatic results Sunday in the alpine skiing and speed skating events, Goldman reports.

Georg Hackl on luge

Georg Hackl of Germany competes in the men's luge singles.
Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited

As U.S. downhill skier Daron Rahlves began to plummet down the ominously named Grizzly downhill run, U.S. fans lining the course thought maybe they'd witness another surprise American gold medalist in this glamour event, like Bill Johnson in 1984 and Tommy Moe in 1994. But Rahlves flew too high over a jump at the top, losing precious time; he never recovered, and finished 16th. Austrian Fritz Strobl, a 26-year-old police officer, conquered the precipitous, zigzagging course and became the sixth Austrian downhill champion in Olympic history.

The event may have shown the United States a hope for the future, though: 21-year-old Marco Sullivan, in his first Olympics, finished ninth. Sullivan was so giddy after his run, Goldman reports, that he didn't even know he was the top American, ahead of teammate Rahlves. "Did I beat Darren? Awright!" Sullivan guffawed. "I don't know, I ski good under pressure... I'm just stoked that I'm in the top 10, that's what I was shooting for."

While the Austrians dominated on show, Germans did the same on ice, Goldman reports. Speed skater Claudia Pechstein broke her own world record in winning the women's 3,000 meters. And going into the final round of men's luge competition today, Germany's legendary Georg Hackl is in second place after the first two runs. If he wins today's final round, the 35-year-old Hackl will become the first winter Olympic athlete to earn four consecutive gold medals in the same individual event.