The 1998 Olympics in Nagano was a beginning for snowboarding with its global debut on the big stage. But for the U.S. riders, 2002 was the coming of age for the sport that had its roots right here in America.
As the halfpipe team was being announced in late January in Breckenridge following the final U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, everyone knew it was a good assemblage of talent with a down-to-the-wire battle for the final spots on Team USA. But no one could have ever dreamed what the outcome would be a few weeks later.
It was opening weekend for the Salt Lake City Games. And at Park City Mountain Resort, a record crowd of over 25,000 was packed into the stands. Vermont's Kelly Clark led a strong U.S. women's squad, standing second after the first run then exploding with a stunning second ride through the halfpipe to take gold for the USA (ironically, forerunning that day were 2006 Olympic halfpipe champion Hannah Teter and snowboardcross silver medalist Lindsey Jacobellis).
Now, the stage was set for the men. Fellow Vermonter Ross Powers, who took bronze in Nagano as a teen, was the favorite. But his wingmen were formidable, as well. Powers wasted no time and posted a massive first run score of 46.1 nearly a four point margin over Danny Kass, with teammate Tommy Cszechin third. Powers' initial hit on that first run has become an iconic moment in the sport's history a huge backside method air followed by linked back-to-back McTwists, and a Cab cork-720. It was golden! Could it be an American sweep?
While Powers' score was untouchable, Kass and Cszechin had to watch out in the best-of-two format. Sure enough, there was a challenge. And it came from American J.J. Thomas well back in ninth place (out of 12) after the first run. Thomas threw down a spectacular second run to bump Cszechin and take bronze 1-2-3 for the USA.
At the medals ceremony in Salt Lake City that evening, the Star Spangled Banner played as three separate American flags were raised a moment never before achieved by any U.S. Winter Olympians.
While Nagano produced two halfpipe medals for the USA (silver for Shannon Dunn, bronze for Powers), the new sport failed to break through the clutter of Olympic events. But in Salt Lake City, it was center stage thanks in a big way to the dominant performance by the U.S. riders. It set the stage for the future and established the sport's first mainstream heroes.
Four years later, it was Shaun White and Hannah Teter's turn at Olympic gold. Today, nearly 12 years after those golden days at PCMR, Kelly Clark continues to dominate her sport and will be a medal favorite this February in Sochi, where she won the Olympic test event a year ago. Ross Powers tried his hand very successfully at snowboardcross, and now gives back to his sport as a coach at Stratton Mountain in Vermont.
A frequent visitor to Park City, Ross still gets a gleam in his eye when he thinks about that magical moment with his friends on top of the Olympic podium and the impact the American riders had on a generation of kids who still look up to them today.
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he's not traveling the world with the team.