WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Even in a sport as wild and unpredictable as snowboard cross, 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.
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 five consecutive jumps that can sap speed if not executed correctly. 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.
“All of Maine is proud of Seth,” Gov. John Baldacci said Monday evening. “For the second time, he has proven that he is the best in the world at snowboard cross. Seth helped to introduce the world to his sport in Turin, and the race this year was a thriller from start to finish. But we’re proud of Seth for more than his gold-medal performance. He’s active in his community and sets a high standard for the way he conducts his life.”
Wescott’s win was hard to believe — not so much because of his history in the sport but because of his last two months.
Wescott, who grew up in Farmington and went to Carrabassett Valley Academy, 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.
He did it by emerging unscathed through four races during which almost anything can, and usually does, happen.
The fastest rider in qualifying, Aussie Alex Pullin, wiped out 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 and wiped out.
Last year’s World Cup champion, Markus Schairer, came in with broken ribs and left early after a wipeout.
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.
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.
But maybe the message Wescott sent is that snowboard cross, for all its craziness, isn’t so unpredictable after all.
It has been in the Olympics twice, and Wescott, a part owner of The Rack, a bar and restaurant At Sugarloaf, his home mountain, has won them both.
The sport 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, ski cross, to the program this year.
These races are must-see TV, NASCAR on ice, some crazy crash or unseen stumble lurking around or behind every one of those bumps and jumps and, in this case, even a few ledges to keep everybody honest.
Organizers even got two of the riders, Baumgartner and seventh-place finisher Mario Fuchs, to wear minicams on their heads 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.
And luckily this time, there was nothing too violent, 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.