KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — For what felt like an eternity, everyone at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park held their collective breath. Kelly Clark, a four-time Olympian, was the final rider of the day and had just put together a strong run. But was it enough for gold? Or a medal of any sort?
She was flanked at either side by the others on the leaderboard, her U.S. teammate Kaitlyn Farrington and Australia’s Torah Bright. Clark waited, partially hiding the bottom part of her face behind her snowboard.
Finally, the score arrived. Clark earned her third Olympic medal, but it wasn’t gold.
Farrington’s strong score held up and the Idaho native took gold here Wednesday, and just one night after the U.S. men were shut out from the halfpipe medals podium, the American women claimed two spots. Clark earned bronze and Bright took silver.
Farrington, 24, twisted and flipped her way to a high-score of 91.75 on her second run in the finals. She had to watch six more riders — including some of the competition’s best snowboarders — and hope her score held up. Hannah Teter, the 2006 gold medalist, was midway through her run when she took a spill. Bright, who won gold at the Vancouver Games, put together a run that wasn’t perfect but was good enough to post a 91.50, leap-frogging Teter on the scoreboard.
Clark was last. She knew she had to go big, and she did just that. She suffered a slight stumble late in the run but was otherwise clean. She posted a score of 90.75, topping Teter by just 0.25 of a point.
The strong runs by U.S. riders were certainly not a big surprise. American women had dominated the halfpipe competition since it debuted at the 1998 Nagano Games. A total of 12 halfpipe medals had been handed out entering these Sochi Games and U.S. riders had claimed six of them, including two golds.
But this 12-rider finals field was packed with talent. Nine of the riders had competed in previous Winter Games. Three had already won gold once before, and the younger riders were already pushing the sport’s boundaries. China’s Cai Xuetong was only 8 years old when Clark won gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, and already Cai was here competing in her second Olympics.
Absent from halfpipe competition was one of the medal favorites, American teen Arielle Gold, who suffered an injury in a training run immediately before the qualification round began and pulled out of the competition.
Farrington, a Salt Lake City resident who posted the highest score in the semifinal round, didn’t carry star power into the Sochi Games, but she had the confidence. She topped both Clark and Teter last month at a Grand Prix event in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., where she qualified for her first Olympics.
Unlike the men’s halfpipe riders one night earlier, the female U.S. riders were good from the start of Wednesday’s finals. Farrington posted a strong first-run score of 85.75, which was the best on board until Teter stepped up. Teter took over the top spot with a mark of 90.50, with two of the event’s top riders waiting in the wings.
But Bright’s first run was spoiled by a bad landing, and Clark took an ugly spill after hitting the top of the wall and tumbling backward. Midway through the competition, Teter and Farrington stood 1-2. Clark’s score of 48.25 put her in 10th place out of the 12 riders.
Clark, 30, entered the Sochi Games saying she’s doing the best riding of her life. Some of her best performances have come in recent years. Sure, she won Olympic gold in 2002 and bronze in 2010, but she’s also won the Winter X-Games superpipe each of the past four years. She has nine X-Games medals in all.
And now she also has a total of three Olympic medals, more than any other halfpipe rider.