KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — For what felt like an eternity, everyone at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park held their collective breath. All they could do was wait. Kelly Clark, a four-time Olympic snowboarder, was the final rider of the day and had just put together a strong run in the halfpipe. But was it enough for gold? Or a medal of any sort? The judges deliberated.
Eager to crack the top-three, Clark waited with a nervous grin, partially hiding behind her snowboard. Hannah Teter, who won gold at the 2006 Games and was now in third place, crossed her fingers. Kaitlyn Farrington, the least accomplished of the group and yet the one sitting in first place, flashed a modest smile. Farrington’s father wasn’t far away. He could feel himself shaking.
All eyes locked on the electronic scoreboard, and finally the numbers flashed. Even Farrington was shocked at the results. A month ago she hadn’t even qualified for the Olympics. Now the number said she had a gold medal.
“I can’t believe it,” she said later.
And who could? Nine of the 12 riders in the field had been on the Olympic stage before. They were among the most recognizable snowboarders in the world. In fact, three had already won Olympic gold.
And then there was Farrington, 24. All she did Wednesday night was shrug off the nerves from her first Winter Games and show that a soft-spoken girl raised on a cattle ranch in the West could grow up to spin, flip and shred with the best of them.
“Who would’ve known she’s going to win this thing?” said her friend, Teter, the 2006 gold medalist who had to settle for fourth in Wednesday’s competition. “I don’t think anybody knew that was coming. So, surprise, surprise."
Clark took bronze, which means that just one night after the U.S. men were shut out from the halfpipe medals podium, the American women claimed two spots. Farrington’s was the big surprise.
She didn't even qualify for the Winter Games until three weeks ago. She said it didn’t sink in that she was an Olympian until she was on the plane to Sochi last week. Her goals here were modest; she simply wanted to reach the final round of the competition.
“Now to leave gold medalist, I’m just beside myself about it,” Farrington said.
She wasn’t the only one. Her sport is packed with unique personalities but no one followed a path to Sochi quite like hers. She grew up on a ranch in Idaho. Her parents loved to ski and in high school Farrington began to take snowboarding more seriously. The sport isn’t cheap, and her parents slowly sold their cattle to keep funding their daughter’s passion.
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
“It was worth it to them,” Farrington said after her big win.
How does a young girl go from riding horses on a ranch to standing atop a medals podium?
“Works hard,” said her father, Gary.
“Rides a lot of horses,” said her mother, Suz. “Good balance. Good balance.”
Of the four American halfpipe entrants, Farrington was the least heralded. Clark and Teter had already won two Olympic medals apiece. And to many, 17-year old Arielle Gold represents the future of the sport. (Gold injured her shoulder in a training run immediately before the qualification round Wednesday and had to pull out of the competition.)
Unlike the U.S. men’s halfpipe riders one night earlier, the American female snowboarders were good from the start in Wednesday’s finals. Teter and Farrington sat 1-2 midway through the competition.
Then came Farrington’s final run. Her goal was simply to make the finals and here she was. Mission accomplished. “I thought, ‘I got nothing to lose right now, so might as well go for it,’” she said.
She slid into the pipe and threw tricks one at a time. Twist, flip, land, repeat. A switchback 720. Back 900. Alley-oop 540. And so on.
Judges awarded her a high-score of 91.75, but she then had to watch the past three gold medalists try to unseat her. Teter took a spill midway through her run, and Torah Bright, the spunky Australian who won gold in Vancouver, wasn’t perfect but was good enough for a score of 91.50, leap-frogging Teter on the scoreboard but a hair below Farrington.
Clark was last. She knew she had to go big. “It’s the Olympics," she said later. "You’re here to perform your best.
Her run was strong but not her best. After much waiting, the numbers flashed on the screen: 90.75. Clark, the most successful rider the sport has seen was short of Farrington’s mark but topped Teter by 0.25 of a point. Bright took silver and was the only thing preventing an American sweep.
The strong runs by U.S. riders were certainly not a big surprise. American women have dominated the halfpipe competition since it debuted at the 1998 Nagano Games. A total of 15 halfpipe medals have been handed out now, and U.S. riders have claimed eight of them, including three golds.
And they’re all unique, certainly none quite like Farrington.
“Snowboarding’s an amazing sport because you really get individuals,” Clark said. “There’s a culture that goes along with, it, there’s a lifestyle. …But at the same time there’s room for individuality, there’s room for creativity.”
And on the biggest of days, there’s room for a young girl from the small ranch who’s capable of surprising even herself.