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Seth Wescott Wins Snowboardcross Gold With Huge Comeback

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WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Six weeks ago, Seth Wescott couldn't walk.

On Monday morning, he couldn't see.

Big problems?

Not so much in the unwieldy, unpredictable sport of snowboardcross.

Wescott overcame long-term injury, a bad qualifying run and a massive deficit to Canada's Mike Robertson in the final Monday to win his second straight Olympic gold medal – an amazing comeback for a rider who came to Vancouver feeling like an old man, not the defending champion.

"As you get older in this sport," he said, "you have to learn to pick and choose your days."

What a day for the 33-year-old veteran from Maine, who qualified 17th of the 32 riders after a skid-out that left him complaining he was essentially "riding blind" through the slushy snow and flat light of weather-plagued Cypress Mountain.

What he saw about a third of the way down the hill in the four-man final was no better.

His teammate Nate Holland spun out, turning it into a three-man race – but really less than that. Robertson emerged untouched from the wreck and was basically out of Wescott's shouting range. The announcers on Canadian TV were practically awarding him the medal and had every reason to expect the country's second gold.

Wescott, though, is a veteran and a tactician – expecting to have to come from behind in a race where he had the worst starting position because of his low seeding from qualifying. He knew his chances would come near the end of the course, on Turns 5 and 6, then Nos. 7 and 8, so he bided his time and made up the gap.

Kept closing. And closing. Then took the lead and held it.

And it was the United States that ended up with its second gold of the Games, while Robertson settled for silver and France's Tony Ramoin took bronze.

"That kind of gap, most people – well, really, nobody, overcomes that," said America's snowboard coach, Peter Foley.

Not bad for a guy who had doubts about whether he would even make it after he jammed his femur into his pelvis in a race in December, an injury that was, he assures, every bit as bad as it sounds.

"Had never had that kind of pain in my pelvis before, and it was hard to know exactly what was wrong with me," Wescott said. "All of January and the tour through Europe was pretty depressing for me. Just a lot of pain."

Not so much, though, that he didn't at least think about victory.

He packed the neatly folded flag his father had given him for his celebration four years ago in Turin, gave it to a PR person for the U.S. Snowboarding team and asked her to have it handy at the finish just in case.

The flag, presented to Wescott's late grandfather years ago by the U.S. military, was draped around Seth's neck at the bottom of the hill, while he celebrated with his folks and his sister.

"That was part of the motivation to get to this moment," Wescott said. "I brought it so if I got to this moment, I'd have it here."

The second-place finisher, Robertson, said he thought he had the win sewn up. He had good reason as he flew over the bumps and jumps and ramps and didn't feel anyone near him – a rare sensation in a sport where contact is almost always a turn away. He mistimed one of five jumps that came in quick succession near the bottom and soon found himself being passed.

"I thought I was in control for sure," he said. "I thought I had a chance to win it. But as soon as I came up short on that jump, I knew someone was going to pass me."

It's still a nice result for the Canadian, who won his country's fourth medal of the games and wasn't expected to make it so far – with only two World Cup podiums in 31 starts, and none this season.

As if past results mean anything in a sport where anything can, and most usually does, happen.

The fastest rider in qualifying, Aussie Alex Pullin, caught an edge and fell in the first race.

This year's top-ranked rider in the World Cup, France's Pierre Vaultier, got mixed up with Canadian Drew Nielson, lost his balance and fell.

Last year's World Cup champion, Markus Schairer, came in with broken ribs and left early after a wreck.

American Graham Watanabe, who qualified second, got beat in a photo finish, and his teammate, Nick Baumgartner, slipped and went sprawling into the netting.

Another Canadian, Francois Boivin, did a somersault and a face plant.

"It's just part of the sport," Pullin said. "We race on the edge, and that's the price you have to pay."

On and on it went until Holland, the American who won his fifth straight Winter X Games last month, made the final mistake – a spinout that knocked Wescott back to third, way behind Robertson, who missed the wreck.

Despite the accidents, the day closed, thankfully, with no need for anyone to be taken off in a stretcher or worse – an issue that came to the fore after the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a training run last week.

Like many of the winter sports, there's in inherent danger in snowboardcross, and anyone who steps onto the board knows it.

The message Wescott sent, however, is that his sport, for all its craziness, isn't so unpredictable after all.

It has been in the Olympics twice, and Wescott has won twice.

"He's been in those positions. He knows what it takes to get in first, and he's one hell of a rider," Holland said. "He's got the skills. He's the full package."

The sport Wescott owns was brought to the Olympics in 2006 to inject some life and youth and X Games attitude into games that were, by many measures, falling behind the times. It did that. So much so that the Olympics are introducing its cousin, skicross, to the program this year.

These races are must-see TV, NASCAR on ice, some crazy crash or unpredictable stumble lurking behind every one of those bumps and jumps and, on this course, even a few ledges to keep everybody honest.

Organizers got two of the riders, Baumgartner and seventh-place finisher Mario Fuchs, to wear helmet cams to give TV viewers a first-person view of what it's like skidding down the hill at 30 mph, trading paint, and elbows, in a constant struggle for position.

They were both bystanders at the end, getting to watch the man who, for all intents and purposes, is the godfather of snowboardcross – hard as that role might be some times.

"It's not that fun riding a crappy World Cup course in Bad Gastein, Austria," Wescott said. "But when you get to the Olympics and get on a course like this, you find that you can get pretty damn motivated."

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