WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Even in a sport as wild and unpredictable as snowboardcross, it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise to see the Olympic champion defend his title.
But really, snowboard fans — where in the world did Seth Wescott come from?
Heading into the last half of Monday’s final, the 33-year-old from Maine was barely within shouting distance of Canadian Mike Robertson. Then, out of nowhere, Wescott closed the gap, overtook the Canadian and held him off at the finish to take the gold medal — his second straight and America’s second of these Winter Olympics.
“That kind of gap, most people — well, really, nobody, overcomes that,” said America’s snowboard coach, Peter Foley.
Tony Ramoin of France won the bronze, finishing ahead of American Nate Holland, whose spinout about a third of the way down the course set up what seemingly looked like a breeze for Robertson, an underdog who was going for his country’s second gold medal of the games.
Wescott made up the distance over a series of four turns and five jumps that can sap speed if not handled correctly — and win the gold if they are.
“I’d made some mistakes in there earlier in the day,” Wescott said. “I knew if I came back and executed it correctly, I could do it. It wasn’t a situation of looking for a miracle at all.”
The crowd, about half Canadian and half American, gasped and cheered. Wescott crossed the line first and fell to the ground, then draped the stars and stripes across his shoulders — the same flag he held four years ago in Turin, the one that was given to his grandfather by the U.S. military.
“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.”
His win this time was hard to believe — not so much because of his history in the sport but because of his last two months.
Wescott dinged up his leg and pelvis at an event two months ago, couldn’t walk for two weeks and came to the Olympics admittedly not riding his best.
He finished 17th of the 32 riders in qualifying — not up to his standards — and was one of the few riders who would acknowledge that the conditions at weather-plagued Cypress Mountain — slushy, flat light, inconsistent snow — were crummy.
“You’re pretty much riding blind in there,” he said between qualifying and the finals.
His low seeding meant he had to wear the black vest for the final three of the four races he ran (the top seed in each race gets to wear red, No. 2 blue and No. 3 yellow).
But the man in black, a technician who prides himself on finding the winning paths down any course, won gold, in part because he stayed patient at the end — knowing Robertson would be in the early lead because he got the best lane choice for the final and Wescott got the worst.
He overcame the big deficit and emerged unscathed through four races during which almost anything can, and usually does, happen.