By Sean Radich
Thursday, 16 February 2006
The third day of snowboard competition at Bardonecchia, and the third gold medal in a row for the USA…this time to Seth Westcott in the Snowboardcross. Westcott was one of the leading contenders to take the first ever contested Olympic Snowboardcross medal after being crowned the 2005 World Champion. But there were other strong riders to battle it out against the American, including 2004 World Champion, Frenchman Xavier Delarue and Canada’s Drew Neilson. However, in the final four man heat, after the rest of the 32-man field had been whittled down by a series of knock-out heats, it was the younger brother Delarue, Paul-Henri, who stood aside Westcott on the podium in third along with Slovakia’s Radoslav Zidek in second.
The final was an absolute showcase of snowboarding, snow-based racing and the argy-bargy spectacle that is Snowboardcross. The sun was shining after a snowy start to the day and Westcott, a former halfpipe rider and US Olympic Freestyle Team hopeful, was riding his freestyle board, along with Delarue, whilst Zidek and Spain’s Jordi Font “Euro-ed” it up with hard boots and alpine race boards. From the start it was Zidek who took the lead whilst Font faltered on the successive halfpipe-like “Wu-Tang” obstacles. Westcott was close behind, keeping calm and composed and waiting for his chance to pounce, which happened about halfway down the course on a tight right-handed berm as Zidek lost some speed. Westcott snuck past and held Zidek off through the next series of jumps, bumps and corners, zigging and zagging in front of the Slovak and not allowing him an opportunity to pass. But coming into the final straight and two drop-off jumps, it was Zidek on his faster race board that had the momentum. Westcott could feel Zidek’s presence and see a shadow looming to his right, so with a quick blocking jig he cut across the Slovak who had to change his line and try to sneak in behind Westcott. The two zoomed almost neck and neck towards the steep finish line, both tucked in racer stances, but it was Westcott who crossed the line, maybe just half a metre in front of Zidek. As soon as he knew he had won, Westcott threw his hands up in the air and saluted the roaring crowd, grabbed the obligatory “stars and stripes” and hugged his teammates, savouring every moment of his glory.
Australian hopeful, Damon Hayler, did not start his campaign well this morning with a 28th-place finish for the first qualification run in wintry conditions hampered by wet falling snow. However, Hayler relaxed more for his second chance to qualify, blitzing the run and bettering his time by three and a half seconds to record a best-of-two-runs time that qualified him into twelfth place for the finals. Hayler, normally known for his freestyle riding, was a surprise to many to even make the Olympics…but not to him. Hayler had the speed a couple of years ago to clean-up on the Australian boardercross circuit, but receiving no funding from the Australian Olympic Winter Institute, he had to resort to the regular life of an Aussie snowboard bum/professional rider: trekking across continents and working as much as he could to fund his expensive passion while trying to get as much snowboarding in as possible. But late last year it all came to fruition for Hayler as he grabbed third place in the World Cup Snowboardcross round in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, which gave him direct qualification to the Olympics. Even back in September last year, Hayler told me of his confidence to make the team for Torino, but up in the stands, the obvious joy on his parents’, sister’s and girlfiend’s faces, as they watched their boy out there competing in the finals, was evident above all else. You could say they were pretty darn stoked that he was here, representing Australia, and representing the Hayler name. And once again there was a tight-knit contingent of loud Aussie supporters in the stand, decked out in green and gold…and this time with “I love Damon” stickers.
In the four-man first heat (1/8 Round) Hayler was drawn to compete with Xavier Delarue and he rode strongly to finish first and in front of the 2004 Champion, who came in third and was thus eliminated from the finals. And again in the next heat Hayler rode tactically, keeping out of trouble to come in second and move through to the semi-finals. But it was here that Hayler’s luck ran out, getting bumped on a corner, and missing a gate which ended his chances of progressing. And in the ‘Small Final’ to determine places 5 through 8, Hayler started well, leading the pack, but about halfway down the course he received a little, but legal, nudge which pushed him into a slower, lower line around a sharp corner and was eventually overtaken by two other riders. In the end Hayler finished seventh overall, doing his country and his family proud with a brave and aggressive display of riding. And hey, seventh in the world and on the biggest arena in the world is not bloody bad for a guy who lists what he does as “Terrain Park Employee” on his Olympic bio. And just maybe with this result Hayler, and the other Australian Snowboardcross riders can shout to the corporate sponsorship world “Show me the Money!”
Report by Sean Radich in Bardonecchia, Italy