Wescott grinds through to reach first 'cross gold

BARDONECCHIA, Italy -- Seth Wescott has been dreaming of Olympic gold since he was 8 years old.

That summer, his father, a track coach, bought the family's first color TV so they could watch his former runner, Joan Benoit, win the first gold medal in the women's marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It was then that Wescott realized the enormity of the accomplishment.

It took 22 years, but he finally experienced the feeling for himself.

Wescott, now 29, got a slow start out of the gate in the inaugural snowboardcross final Thursday afternoon. Radoslav Zidek of Slovakia was much faster and sustained a lead for the majority of the race. Wescott, a skateboarder, drew on his summertime halfpipe and bowl-riding experience and stayed high in his turns while Zidek put gaps between them by going low. Wescott knew the fastest line for him and his equipment was high at the top of the turn.

"Seth was so patient and did everything right," U.S. Snowboarding coach Peter Foley said. "It's so tempting to follow when you're racing and a rider cuts inside on you, but Seth knew his line was fastest for him and it would eventually pay off."

Late in the course, it did. Wescott shot out of a hard right turn and popped in front of Zidek, sliding under the finish line just half a snowboard length in front of the Slovak. According to many of the riders, the race and finish were the most exciting in the history of snowboardcross (aka boardercross).

Said Foley: "The only mistake Rado made is that Seth rode faster."

Wescott began snowboarding at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine when he was 10 and first attempted to make the U.S. Olympic team in 1998, when halfpipe made its Olympic debut. The Farmington, Maine, native failed to qualify. By the time the U.S. men swept the medals podium in Salt Lake in 2002, Wescott's halfpipe days had come and gone. So, when the announcement was made in February 2003 that snowboardcross would be making its first appearance in 2006, Westcott immediately set his sights on Torino.

"I was so excited about the decision to include boardercross because it was no longer a question of whether I could make the team or not, it was a question of what I could go there and accomplish," Wescott said. "So, since February of 2003, I've been working for this, and today I got it done."

The Olympic course, designed by Scandinavian shaper David Ny, also gave Wescott a hand. According to Foley, the course, which gave the opportunity to reach only medium speeds, had more banks and turns than normal because of the steep pitch of the terrain and was very, very long.

"In the history of boardercross, the best courses have been really long, and athletes love that," Foley said. "If the race today was half as long, Seth wouldn't have won."

The victory was the biggest accomplishment in Wescott's career, which already included seven X Games medals, three SBX national championships and five World Cup podiums. Last season, Wescott won the gold medal at the 2005 World Championships, doing so just one week after a crash left him with 13 stitches in his shin and a sprained right MCL. But such injuries are expected in snowboardcross, an event in which riders reach speeds of over 40 mph, contact is common and crashes are frequent.

Wescott keeps himself in shape for this rigorous event by working out in the gym, surfing, skateboarding, white-water kayaking and mountain biking. He also spends a portion of his year being dropped out of a helicopter onto backcountry runs in Alaska, where the steep faces, long descents, amazing scenery and close calls (he was carried 750 feet by an avalanche in 2003 and emerged unscathed) prepare his mind, body and soul for his SBX races.

"Think about it," he said. "A downhill skier comes to the Olympics and takes one run. If we make the finals, we do six, plus warm-ups, and it's a minute-and-30-second run. You have to be in shape to pull that off."

Wescott was. And he did.

Lindsay Berra is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.