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The value of gold

1/29/2011

In mathematics, the answer is simple. Five is greater than two. Always. Arriving at that conclusion doesn't take much debate. But in Snowboarder X, it's not that straightforward. We're talking, of course, about Winter X gold medals versus Olympic wins. Nate Holland, who's competed at Winter X since 2002, is the five-time defending Snowboarder X champ. He is also a two-time Olympian, but has yet to medal at the Olympics. Seth Wescott is competing in his 14th Winter X Games -- more than any other athlete -- but has never won a Snowboarder X gold medal. (He has three silvers and a bronze.) Also a two-time Olympian, Wescott is the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist. So which holds more clout? Five? Or two?

"The two Olympic medals," says defending Ski Slopestyle gold medalist Bobby Brown, whose sport has yet to be added to the Olympic lineup. "It's the Olympics. But since Nate has the streak here at Winter X, I'm going with Nate for the win Saturday. He just owns this course."

Olympic snowboard gold medalist Kelly Clark agrees with Brown's alternative math. "There is nothing that compares to the Olympics, so to win back-to-back gold medals in a sport like snowboard cross, where there are so many variables at play, speaks volumes about Seth and his ability."

It speaks, at least, to his ability, confidence and mental fortitude in big international events and less-than-favorable conditions, and at times when the odds are stacked against him.

In Vancouver, Wescott arrived hobbling because of injuries to his pelvis and right knee and qualified 17th of 32 riders. In the final, he came out of the first turn in fourth of four riders. Then Holland crashed and Wescott passed Mike Robertson of Canada and Tony Ramoin of France at the bottom of the course to win his second straight gold. Here at the X Games, where the course is the best the riders see all season, Wescott has been unable to put together a flawless finals run. Holland, on the other hand, seems unbeatable in Aspen.

"The Olympic and World Cup courses are condensed," says Holland, who has three FIS World Championship bronze medals to Wescott's 2005 gold and three silvers. "If you force a pass on those courses, there is a high probability you will crash. The X Games builds a far superior course. It's longer; it has bigger airs and it's all-around better. I guess I can ride bigger, better courses better than other people."

Not to discount Holland's ability to put himself into position to advance through the rounds without accident, but five wins in five years also requires assistance from Lady Luck.

"I've had blowups right next to me and they could definitely have taken me out, so there is a little bit of luck there," Holland says. "But I put myself in good position not to be taken out. I don't force passes. There is plenty of time and the course is wide, and that plays into my strengths. This course allows the better rider to win."

But is the better rider at Winter X truly the better rider? "Yeah, to be that consistent is pretty proper. I'll give it to Nate," says halfpipe snowboarder Danny Davis, who missed last winter's Olympics with a broken back and shattered pelvis, and returned to the halfpipe Thursday night in SuperPipe prelims. "Seth gets a lot of attention for those Olympic wins. I think Nate deserves some props."

His competitors agree. "The consistency going year to year to year to year, it's unprecedented," says 2010 U.S. Olympic team member Graham Watanabe. "It's historic. But to put it all together on that one day every four years, two times in a row, is also awesome. It's really a tossup."

So what do Holland and Wescott think? "I'm going to go with winning the Olympics twice," Wescott said earlier this month. "I don't want to take away from what Nate has done, but I feel like I lack a little motivation when I get to X Games."

Not surprisingly, Holland disagrees. "I'm proud of my five medals. I've worked hard for them and I've been the best man on that day five times," Holland says. "I do want an Olympic gold and I plan on going through Sochi, but I wouldn't trade one of my Winter X medals for an Olympic gold. They all mean too much."

Still, don't discount a third option: neither Holland nor Wescott standing atop the top rung of the Winter X podium Saturday night. "I'd like to see that," Watanabe says. "I'd like to be the guy to end Nate's reign of terror."

And start an entirely new debate.