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U.S. snowboarders look to dominate

Shauna FarnellEagle County correspondent
Andy Finch takes to the air during Tuesday's halfpipe practice at the Olympic snowboard venue in Bardonecchia, Italy. (Diether Endlicher/AP)
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TURIN, Italy – If there’s one event Americans are likely to dominate in this Winter Olympics, it’s halfpipe. The U.S. Snowboard Team landed safely here Monday and has already begun training at the halfpipe in Bardonecchia. When Gretchen Bleiler was in the Olympic Village in Bardonecchia a year ago, it was simply a peaceful little town. But it didn’t take much for the 24-year-old snowboarder to get the cogs of her imagination turning back then.”I’m really glad I got to come here last year,” the 24-year-old Aspen native said Monday. “I knew I wanted to do it for a reason, to see it without all of this crazy hype, without the Olympic Village and the flags.”Qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Team was Bleiler’s only goal this season. Having missed the cut for the Salt Lake Olympics four years ago, Bleiler had a mission this time around. After winning four Grand Prix halfpipe events this season, she was so bent on being healthy for the Olympics that she skipped defending her title at the Winter X Games at the last minute. The decision cost her a performance in front of her home crowd at Buttermilk, across the street from her house.

As far as how the atmosphere in Bardonecchia has changed since last year, Bleiler said the contrast is significant.”When I came here this year I could just kind of look back to that and remember. It does get a little crazy with the Olympic buzz and all the media and the Olympic Village,” she said. “It feels a little different now. But I can remember it as it was, too. Every day after practice last year, we would walk to this little Italian restaurant right before the Olympic Village. Kelly [Clark] and I would just laugh because there’s this huge Olympic Village, and you would only hear one hammer pounding every single day. Like one man was building this entire village. And they didn’t seem to be in any hurry.”The relaxed nature of the Italians is one of the first things the members of the Olympic snowboarding team noted upon landing in Turin. Elena Hight of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., had never been to Italy before arriving on Sunday night.”They’re very friendly and mellow and nice,” said Hight, who, at 16, is one of the youngest competitors at the Games. “I’m part Italian, so it’s like’s coming back to the roots.”Andy Finch, from Truckee, Calif., recently discovered that he has family in Turin. His parents, who will arrive later this week, will stay with them while he stays in the Olympic Village.

“I don’t know much about them,” Finch said. “I know that they don’t speak much English and we don’t speak much Italian. But it should be fun. I enjoy the Italian culture. They’re laid-back and funny.”You always have the language barrier. It always seems like they’re yelling at you, but they’re not … always.”Reaching his destination was a huge relief for Finch, who spent the flight squeezed in the center of a full row and surrounded by crying babies on the back of the plane from Reno, Nev.”Flying in the middle seat in the back, all the way … Yes, I just about snapped,” he said. “I usually fly first class. To be in the back, middle, middle coming here, ugh. It hurt.”The U.S. Olympic halfpipe team began training Tuesday and will compete in Bardonecchia Sunday, beginning with the men’s event. The women will follow on Monday. The men’s team swept the podium in the 2002 Olympic halfpipe contest, while Clark took gold for the women. Many believe the Americans will deliver another strong showing in Italy.

“All four of us know how to perform under pressure,” Finch said of the men’s team, which also consists of Mason Aguirre, Shaun White and Danny Kass. “We’re going to go out and throw down for sure.”Because results from the Grand Prix circuit determine the U.S. Olympic halfpipe team – and the events often occur simultaneously with the World Cup halfpipe events – American riders don’t always get an opportunity to compete against riders from other nations. Still, most of the U.S. Team has faced the best from other nations many times, as Bleiler did last year in Bardonecchia. “I’ve competed in this exact same halfpipe against exactly the same people,” Bleiler said. “So in that sense, it’s just another contest.”Still, the flavor of the area and the Olympic atmosphere make this halfpipe contest a difficult one to lump in with all the rest Bleiler has experienced.”Driving from Bardonecchia to Turin, you’re seeing castles up on the mountains,” she said. “There’s just so much character here. You go through security. You’re walking through the village. Everyone has their team uniform on. You kind of look around and go, ‘Wow. I’m at the Olympics.'”


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