Shaun White, Kelly Clark lead US halfpipe team

By Will Graves, AP
Saturday, January 23, 2010

White, Clark headline US halfpipe team

PARK CITY, Utah — Winning a gold medal isn’t enough for Shaun White. He wants perfection, too.

The way the snowboarding superstar is riding while pushing the sport’s envelope, don’t bet against him.

White celebrated his spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic halfpipe team by putting together one of the most dazzling runs of his spectacular career Saturday night, nabbing a score of 49.5 — just a half-point shy of a perfect 50 — to win a U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix event for the fourth time this season.

The defending Olympic champion capped the night by donning the plaid Team USA jackets that went to the six riders who secured their spots.

“It didn’t feel real until tonight, putting this jacket on,” White said.

Maybe, but it certainly looked real after White wowed the judges with his newest invention — a double McTwist 1260 — for the second straight night, the highlight of a run that left him on the precipice of perfection.

“I wanted to push judges to the boundaries they go to,” White said. “I know they haven’t handed out full-on perfect score yet. So I’ll get them.”

Next stop, the X-Games. And Vancouver is only three weeks away.

White is the leader of what U.S. halfpipe coach Mike Jankowski called “the strongest team ever,” heady praise for a program that’s won 10 of 18 possible medals since the sport was introduced at Nagano 12 years ago.

“We’re setting the bar, that’s what we’ve done,” Jankowski said.

A bar that’s been raised considerably by White, who is thriving in his new role of innovator. Four years ago he went to Turin taking tricks other riders invented and putting his own spin on them.

Now, he’s the one breaking new ground, thanks in part to the double McTwist — a trick in which he combines two vertical flips and a 540-degree turn.

White is the only rider on the planet doing the trick, though he’s not exactly ready to call himself the favorite. He listed U.S. teammates Louie Vito and Scotty Lago among his top threats in Vancouver.

“The guys you see in front of you are big competition,” White said, sitting at the table with his teammates.

Vito virtually assured himself of making his first Olympic team weeks ago thanks to a pair of runner-up finishes to White. The “Dancing With The Stars” veteran had a lackluster weekend in Park City, failing to reach the podium on either night, though he’s confident he’ll be ready at Cypress Mountain next month.

While White and Vito were virtual locks coming into the weekend, Lago is a surprise. The 22-year-old from Seabrook, New Hampshire struggled with his confidence earlier in the year and came in as a longshot to make the team.

Inspired by injuries to good friends Danny Davis and Kevin Pearce, Lago put together two solid days — including a run of 48.0 on Saturday — to make the team.

The celebration, however, is tempered by the fact that both Davis and Pearce won’t be there to ride with him. Pearce remains in serious condition after crashing in practice on Dec. 31, while Davis fractured his back and pelvis in a four-wheeler accident last week.

“I feel pretty bad about the situation,” said Lago, who will dedicate his Olympics to his friends.

While the men’s team features new faces, a trio of Olympic veterans will compete on the women’s side.

Kelly Clark, who won the gold medal in Park City in 2002, leads an experienced group that Jankowski said is among the best in the world.

Clark, who finished fourth in Turin, continued her dominance with a run of 47.4 on Saturday to win for the fourth time this season.

She’ll be joined in Vancouver by defending Olympic champion Hannah Teter and 2006 silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler.

Clark can’t match White for star quality — nobody does when compared to snowboarding’s Pied Piper — but she brings a ton of experience and a “Big Air” package that few if any women can match.

Except for maybe her teammates.

“They definitely go big, have good variety in their runs, have difficult runs and can execute on demand,” Jankowski said. “Being under pressure is no problem.”

Teter hasn’t been in top form this year but put together a solid run on Saturday, finishing second to Clark with a score off 43.9. The 22-year-old from Belmont, Vt., said she’s donating her $10,000 in winnings from the weekend to relief efforts in Haiti.

Bleiler, her Olympic spot already safely in hand, opted to take the second run off Saturday after banging her head during practice. She said she’ll be OK.

The United States could add two more halfpipe spots Monday when the full snowboard team is announced. Greg Bretz and Luke Mitrani are considered the top men’s candidates. Mitrani was third on Saturday, with Bretz in fourth.

Kaitlyn Farrington and 2006 Olympian Elena Hight are in the mix to make the women’s team. Farrington was a solid third behind Clark and Teter on Saturday.

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