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A Giant Loss for Americans

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 1998; Page D1

 Sandra Van Ert
 American Sandra Van Ert passes a gate during the women's giant slalom snowboarding competition. She finished in 12th place.
(Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
YAMANOUCHI, Japan, Feb. 10 (Tuesday) — Poor weather conditions, unfamiliar snow, nervousness and "death cookies" all contributed to the incredible debacle for the U.S. womenís snowboarding team in the giant slalom today, the U.S. riders said.

Whatever the explanation — and a great variety were offered — the results were identical for the four U.S. competitors: They tumbled in a snowy first run in which numerous riders crashed, highly unusual in this event.

As American after American took major spills, the high hopes for the United Statesís first Winter Olympic medal were slowly and stunningly extinguished.

"The women are not as bad as this," said Sondra Van Ert, the only American entitled to a second run because she finished the first despite her fall. "Itís a terrible showcase. I donít think anyone looked good."

Actually, Karine Ruby of France looked rather good, winning the gold medal with a combined time of 2 minutes 17.34 seconds. Heidi Renoth of Germany won the silver in 2:19.17 and Brigitte Koeck of Austria was third in 2:19.42. Highly favored to win at least one medal in this event, the U.S. women instead dominated the "did not finish" listing, which claimed 10 of the 31 competitors.

After the first run, U.S. rider Rosey Fletcher approached teammate Betsy Shaw and said in an agonized pitch: "Betsy, what were we doing?"

The U.S. womenís debut in this new Olympic sport offered the same medal-less result as the American men in their giant slalom snowboard competition Sunday. Both failures were considered upsets of a high magnitude. The United States, after all, invented snowboarding.

Of the 24 medals awarded in the first three days of Olympic competition, U.S. athletes have won precisely zero.

"Every person here was a medal contender," Van Ert said. "This womenís team was phenomenal."

The competition took place in a steady, heavy snowfall that Fletcher said affected visibility. U.S. rider Lisa Kosglow, however, said the visibility was just fine.

At least there was consensus about the fact the Americans were unaccustomed to the course preparation. Because of heavy snowfall overnight, the course was watered down before the race to pack down the snow. The result, Kosglow said, was that the course was in perfect shape, but the U.S. women — used to poorly prepared World Cup courses — were thrown off by it.

According to Fletcher, however, the course was laden with death cookies, which is snowboarding lingo for hard ice chunks.

"For a high-caliber race like this, snow conditions should be top notch," Fletcher said. "This is a race of survival."

Despite the results, the U.S. team members did not seem despondent. They actually shared laughter and jokes about their performances just moments after falling. Van Ert dissolved into tears as she talked to reporters, but her tears, strangely, were tears of joy.

"Thereís nothing I would treasure more than a gold medal at the Olympics, but Iíve got a lot to treasure just being here," she said. "Itís the neatest thing to ever happen to me in life, being part of this."

Todayís U.S. competitors ranged in age from 22 (Fletcher) to 33 (Van Ert) and all have interesting life stories. Kosglow suffered a broken back and torn knee ligaments in 1996 and considered retiring from snowboarding. Van Ert is a land surveyor who tried snowboarding after a successful career with the U.S. ski team. Fletcherís nickname is "Turkey" and she spends her free time riding in go-carts. Shaw is fluent in German.

"I know all four of us gave all we had and thatís all we can really ask for," Fletcher said. "Weíve all got long lives and careers ahead of us. This is just a stepping stone."

The U.S. athletes offered differing perspectives on their problems, so perhaps it isnít surprising that they even fell at widely different points. Van Ert, who finished 12th, fell barely out of the gate. Shaw fell with about 10 flags remaining. Kosglow fell about midway through and Fletcher took two tumbles before coasting off on her rear and dropping to her elbows in disbelief.

"In skiing, you can have a little bobble at any time and just put your other ski out to get your balance," Van Ert said. "On a snowboard, your feet are always equidistant and locked together. . . . Thatís how close you are to the edge."

Said Shaw: "I just felt like I was hanging on for dear life all the way down."

The women seemed disappointed only about missing a chance to make a smashing debut on this huge Olympic stage.

"This wasnít exactly stellar today for me or the other U.S. women," Kosglow said. "We all had high medal hopes. Iím really surprised."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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