Pipe Dreams

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Early Sunday morning, during the last Olympic qualifying event for the U.S. snowboard team, medal favorite Hannah Teter lounged at the bottom of the half-pipe— the sloping channel where boarders do their tricks— at Mountain Creek Resort in Vernon, N.J. Since she had already earned a trip to Torino, Teter could just, as she says, "chill out." She shimmied to the hip-hop music blaring over the loudspeakers, and cheered while her teammates soared. "It's great to have the opportunity to reach out to people that don't know much about snowboarding, so they can see it, and get stoked on it," says Teter, 19, of the exposure the upcoming Olympics will give her sport. “We're so stoked on it, and we're just amped if other people are stoked on it too."

The world's best snowboarders, like Teter, still project the laid-back, surfer-dude spirit that sparked this once-renegade sport (the public address announcer's favorite word at the Mountain Creek Grand Prix: "gnarly"). But make no mistake, these elite athletes are no slackers. America is stoked about the shredders— from the mainstream sponsors whose banners line the pipe— Chevrolet, Sprint, State Farm (crash your board, but not your car)— to the mini-van moms who, kids in tow, watch Teter “McTwist” to Guns N’ Roses.

Half-pipe fans should expect a stunning show in Torino. Despite winning four of the six possible men's and women's medals in Salt Lake City, expectations are even higher for the 2006 Games, which start on Feb. 10. "We are shooting for sweeps on both sides of the podium," says Bud Keene, the U.S. Olympic half-pipe coach. "Why would we shoot for anything else? We're taking an even stronger crew (to the Olympics) this time. Our men are just unbelievable, and our women are four of the seven strongest women in the world."

On the men's side Shaun White, nicknamed the "Flying Tomato" for the long red locks that spill through his helmet, seems almost certain to win gold. A child prodigy so savvy on a board that he could outrace adults while riding backwards, White, 19, finished first in all five Olympic qualifiers. "The only person who can beat Shaun is Shaun," says Rene Hansen, team director for Burton Snowboards, a top U.S. manufacturer. Like the wunderkinds to which he is compared— Tiger Woods, LeBron James— White views life as a constant competition, whether it's one-upping a fellow boarder’s tricks, or matching his coach's guitar skills note for note. "Shaun, above all, is a perfectionist, to the most unbelievable degree I've ever seen," says Keene. "So add that to the fact that he's the most naturally talented snowboarder in the world— now, possibly ever - and you've got a package that’s almost unbeatable." White, no braggart, has even stunned himself. "I don't know if there's a Shaun somewhere else out there," he says.

While the other U.S Olympic men's half-pipers – 2002 silver medalist Danny Kass, 23, daredevil Andy Finch, 24, and Mason Aguirre, 19— chase the "The Flying Tomato," the women's competition is a two-rider race. Teter, 18, and defending X-Games champ Gretchen Bleiler, 24, fuel the most intense rivalry in the sport. Both can land the top women's move, the 900 (two-and-a-half spins in mid-air), with ease. And they do it while eyeing their antagonist. "We'll be like hanging out at the top, and I'll say, like, 'So you're going to push me tonight?'” says Teter, who is friends with Bleiler off the pipe. "And she'll be like, 'Yeah, I'm going to push you, you going to push me?' And I'm like, 'ah ha.'" So we build off each other. I know she's really good, she knows I'm . . .pretty good."

Teter's bluffing - after all, she was the first woman to land a 900 in competition, and won’t reveal her new Olympic tricks (2002 gold medalist Kelly Clark, 22, and Elena Hight, 16, also made the U.S. women’s team). When she needs to escape the Gretchen grudge match, Teter meditates at a Benedictine monastery near her Vermont home. "I go there and kind of just forget about everything— my life, my stresses, my world," says Teter. She has also struck up friendships with the monks. “They are sooooo cool,” she says. “They are sooooo fun, and just super smart and jolly, you know?" Her Benedictine buddies won’t travel to Torino, but after the Games, Teter vows to fill them in. Since Teter and her teammates are sure to pile medals, the monks, and the surging hordes of snowboard fans, will all be jolly. And stoked.