American Seth Wescott defends Olympic snowboard cross gold medal in Vancouver

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; D05

WEST VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Sure, he won the last gold Olympic medal in snowboard cross, but Seth Wescott, 33, had been largely forgotten this season. He had been injured. He had not competed well. He entered the Olympics ranked ninth in the world. The talk surrounded a Frenchman, an Austrian, a pair of rising Americans.

But Wescott? He was the wild card. The old guy. Who knew what he would bring?

He brought, it seemed, everything he had learned in his long career. Wescott patiently moved from dead last to first place in a jaw-dropping Olympic snowboard cross final Monday. The race featured a spin-out by more highly regarded U.S. teammate Nate Holland, a dominant start by Canadian Mike Robertson, and a savvy move by Wescott to overtake Robertson late.

Wescott threw his arms in the air even before his snowboard slid over the finish line just inches ahead of Robertson's, elated at his stunning return to glory. He has now won the only two gold medals awarded in his sport since it debuted at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. Robertson settled for silver, and France's Tony Ramoin got the bronze.

"It was amazing to do it the first time," Wescott said. But "to have had the ups and downs of the last four years -- shattering my arm, not necessarily having motivation all of the time -- it's amazing to stand on this stage and do it."

The victory kept the United States in the lead of the overall medal count with eight, and it concluded Wescott's comeback from a broken forearm in 2007 and a painful pelvis injury in December. It also offered the U.S. team some redemption on an afternoon three other Americans struggled.

In one of the most unpredictable sports in the Olympics, Nick Baumgartner and Graham Watanabe failed to advance out of the round of 16, and Holland, who beat Wescott in the recent Winter X Games snowboard cross final, lost control early in the final and finished fourth.

The Canadian crowd at the bottom of the mountain reacted with glee when the giant video screen showed Holland's mishap, which allowed Robertson to take a huge lead. But Wescott gained speed on straightaways between turns four and five, and six and seven, then passed Robertson when he came up short on a jump low on the course.

"I thought I was in control, for sure," Robertson said.

Wescott had figured he didn't need a miracle; he merely needed to keep his head and use it. He counted on gaining ground gradually and then making a move.

"It's crazy," Robertson said. "He's a big-event rider. He knows how to turn it on and he did today."

Said Watanabe: "For him to be that controlled from so far behind shows his focus and determination. . . . Seth picks and chooses when he wants to charge."

After the race, Wescott carried the military service flag issued to his grandfather for his service during World War II. Wescott had unveiled the same flag at the 2006 Games and had kept it in his house since. But before these Olympics, he folded it up and tucked it in his backpack to be sure he would have it again for a gold-medal moment.

"That's a powerful thing for me, to have something like that as a memento," Wescott said.

Wescott had switched from the snowboard halfpipe in the leadup to the 2006 Winter Games, and he and Holland took turns tearing up the World Cup circuit in snowboard cross a season later, often sharing medal stands together.

But in February 2007, Wescott crashed at a World Cup in Furano, Japan, breaking his forearm and ending his season. He recovered slowly. At the 2009 world championships, he finished fifth after having finished first in 2005 and second in '07. He also performed inconsistently in World Cup events earlier this winter.

"I think the hardest part for me, being at it so long, on a typical World Cup day I don't have a lot of motivation . . . for a crappy course," Wescott said. "But you get to the Olympics, and it's pretty damn motivating."

Wescott didn't feel so good Monday when he spotted Holland on the chair lift, paired with him in the same side of the elimination bracket. Behind Frenchman Pierre Vaultier, who had surprisingly failed to get out of the quarterfinals, Holland was the gold-medal favorite.

But after Holland spun out of contention, Wescott climbed methodically back.

"That was an amazing race," Robertson said. "That's as good as it gets."

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