Olympic Diary: How the Americans Struck Snowboarding Gold

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Forget "Faster, Higher, Stronger" — we're talking "Younger, Hipper, Louder." The women's halfpipe finals, held in Park City under crystalline skies and streaming sunshine, were marked by rock and roll, a laid-back vibe, and some serious competition. American Kelly Clark, 18, took the gold, the first for the U.S. in these games. It was also the country's first gold in the event, which debuted as an Olympic sport four years ago in Nagano.

Clark was in second place after the first run of the finals, trailing Frenchwoman Doriane Vidal, but her second trip down the 155 meter halfpipe was a near-perfect performance. Accompanied by Guns n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle," she pulled off flawless tricks, including a McTwist, in which the boarder launches into a forward twist, spins 180 degrees, and lands facing the opposite way she took off. Clark impressed the judges by jumping higher than her competitors (what's known in the sport as getting "wicked air"), which is one of the key components of scoring. "I knew I wasn't going to finish with anything less than a silver," Clark said, beaming at the post-event press conference. "So I just let it all out."

That she did; it was good enough to propel her past front-runner Vidal, who was favored to win but settled quite graciously for a silver. Olympic-level snowboarders make up a small, unpretentious and tight-knit community, cheering each other on at the bottom of each run — so much so that when Vidal congratulated Clark and said "I'm just very happy to have won a medal and to be here," it was easy to believe she was sincere.

Also happy to be here: a crowd that was not your average Olympic cheering section. Loud, boisterous and markedly youthful, the fans lent a party atmosphere to the event. The event announcers did the same, describing the action over a loudspeaker with phrases like "she's grabbin' huge air!" and leading the crowd in lusty cheers for whichever boarder had just completed a McTwist, a front-side seven or a 540 (just a few of the gravity-defying, back-bending tricks that define snowboarding).

After the final run, as Clark took first place, the crowd erupted in happy screams. The Clark's coach and cheering teammates enveloped her in hugs. They looked so happy you could have sworn they'd just won gold themselves.