High-flying performance earns first U.S. gold in Salt Lake City

Golden Air

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Old school, meet the new school.

Snowboarder Kelly Clark, in an Olympic event that's all of 4 years old, soared above the halfpipe course to win America's first Winter Games gold on a day when other countries snapped decades-old winless streaks in more traditional sports.

Clark nailed her final run on Sunday to give the United States its first victory in its first hometown Winter Olympics since 1980 -- three years before the 18-year-old snowboarder was born.

She was cheered wildly by the partisan crowd, which included three barechested men in the freezing weather, the letters ''U-S-A'' painted across their chests. Guns 'n Roses' ''Welcome to the Jungle'' blared as she launched her high-flying, dominating performance.

Doriane Vidal of France won the silver and Fabienne Reuteler of Switzerland won the bronze.

The halfpipe debuted as an Olympic event at Nagano in 1998, where America's Shannon Dunn took a bronze medal.

In two days in Salt Lake City, the Americans -- who hope to capture 20 medals, the most ever for a U.S. winter team -- had one gold and two silver medals.

Earlier, Swiss skier Simon Ammann returned from injury and soared to victory in the 90-meter ski jump -- the first Swiss ski jumping medal since 1972.

That was hardly much of a streak compared to the 54-year stretch of Finnish futility that Samppa Lajunen ended with his gold medal in the Nordic combined.

The nine gold medals awarded so far have gone to nine different countries, an Olympic sharing of the wealth. Austria, with five total medals, was atop the medals chart.

MEN'S DOWNHILL: In one of the games' traditionally glamour events, tradition was served as Austrian Fritz Strobl -- long overshadowed by more illustrious Austrian teammates -- swept to the gold medal.

He became the sixth Austrian to win the downhill in the 15 races since Alpine skiing debuted in 1948, although the first in a decade.

''It's sensational,'' said Strobl, a 29-year-old police officer who had never won a medal in a major competition. ''I didn't expect it. I was just thinking of racing down the course, not of winning.''

Pre-race favorite Stephan Eberharter, one of the Austrians who typically trumps Strobl, finished third to take the bronze. Lasse Kjus of Norway finished second to win his fourth Olympic medal.

American medal hopeful Daron Rahlves, fifth in the downhill at last year's world championships and the reigning world champion in super giant slalom, finished 16th.

''It's a tough one to swallow,'' Rahlves said.

NORDIC COMBINED: Waving a Finnish flag and slowing down as he approached the finish line, Samppa Lajunen relished the moments as he skied to a gold medal in the Nordic combined -- his country's first individual gold in the discipline since 1948.

It wasn't as easy as it looked, he said.

''It is hard work to be 23 years old and win an Olympic medal,'' said Lajunen, who finished ahead of silver medal-winning teammate Jaakko Talluse. Felix Gottwald of Austria won the bronze.

U.S. medal hopeful Todd Lodwick wound up seventh, the highest finish for an American in the sport's Olympic history. ''It's a little bit disappointing, because I had expectations of moving up,'' said Lodwick.

Americans Matt Dayton and Bill Demong were 18th and 19th, respectively. Rolf Monsen's ninth-place showing in 1932 was the previous best finish for a U.S. athlete.

SKI JUMPING: When he was sitting out weeks of the World Cup season with injuries to his back and head, an Olympic gold medal seemed an impossibility for Switzerland's Simon Ammann.

On Sunday, the impossible happened.

With a clutch, final jump on the 90-meter hill, Ammann earned the first Swiss medal in ski jumping since the 1972 Sapporo Games. After nailing his 323-foot jump, the 5-foot-8, 120-pound Ammann peered anxiously at the giant scoreboard -- and learned he was the winner.

Favorite Sven Hannawald of Germany took the silver, and Adam Malysz of Poland the bronze.

SPEEDSKATING: Another race, another record.

Germany's Claudia Pechstein, skating on the lightning-fast ice of the Utah Olympic Oval, set a world record in the 3,000 meters to win the gold while upstaging her teammate and rival, Anni Friesinger.

Pechstein broke her own record by more than 1 1/2 seconds, finishing in 3 minutes, 57.70 seconds. Renate Groenewold of the Netherlands took silver, while, and Canada's Cindy Klassen won bronze. Friesinger, who was aiming for three gold medals in Salt Lake, was shut out.

It was the second world record in as many speedskating races in Salt Lake City.

American Jennifer Rodriguez finished seventh despite breaking her own national record. The former inline skater from Miami still has three other events to pursue her first Olympic medal.

LUGE: Halfway through the four runs of the luge, Adam Heidt was in position to accomplish what no American has yet pulled off -- capture a medal in the men's singles.

Heidt was in fourth place heading into Monday's final two runs, although he was trailing the biggest guns in the sport.

Armin Zoeggeler of Italy, bidding to dethrone three-time Olympic champion Georg Hackl of Germany, was in first place after setting a track record on both his runs. Austria's Markus Prock, a 10-time World Cup champion, was third.

HOCKEY: The preliminary round -- the one without all the NHL stars -- continued, with Germany defeating Austria 3-2 for its second straight victory. The loss, its second straight, virtually eliminates Austria from medal contention.

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