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Dude, boarding is where it's at Tomato and friends are flying highest

BARDONECCHIA, Italy -- It took four hours on a mountain on a windy day a few miles from the French border to reach this conclusion about snowboarders Thursday afternoon: I want to be one. Let's face it, nobody is having a better time participating in the 2006 Olympics than these dudes.


Shaun White has been laughing since he stepped off the airplane. Dude can't get enough, which is one reason people can't get enough of him. Dude looks like Carrot Top with a hangover, but to the iPod generation he's cooler than Elvis. Dude even calls his own mother "Dude."

And she answers.

White broke down in tears after winning the gold medal in halfpipe last week and laughed at himself for being overcome with emotion. He then spent most of his news conference cracking jokes, enjoying the moment and shamelessly pitching himself to his favorite American figure skater and dream girl.

"I'm hoping Sasha Cohen digs gold medalists," he said.

How can you not dig this dude?

The Flying Tomato is making more than his share of cabbage, too. He's pocketing more than a million bucks a year in endorsements and knows he's stealing. He has his own clothing line. He also has his own DVD called "The Shaun White Album" that's flying off the shelves as we speak.

You know what White would be doing if he wasn't on the professional snowboarding circuit? He'd be paying for a season pass so he can snowboard. In less than a week, he's become an international star, known here as "Il Pomodoro Volante." No wonder the 19-year-old from San Diego keeps asking his teammates the same question:

"Dude, you believe we do this for a living?"

Seth Wescott couldn't believe it himself Thursday afternoon, and he's been making a living off his snowboard for years. The American won the first gold medal ever in snowboard cross, which was introduced to the Winter Games this year and had a crowd of about 10,000 in a facility that seated 7,600.

Snowboard cross -- boardercross or Boarder X -- made its Olympic debut Thursday. The venue was packed with people who knew next to nothing about the sport. They were there for the spectacle. And that includes reporters looking for refreshing quotes from riders who haven't been sanitized by sports academies and public-relations machines.

What would you rather have, "This whole Olympic thing has freaked me out," as White said, or, "There's no excuses, but that's the reality," from Yanks goalie John Grahame after a 3-3 tie with Latvia?

"I hope now we'll get some credit as Olympic athletes," said American rider Jason Anderson. "We come out here and train all the time. We're not just snowboard bums jumping off our couch. Hopefully, now we'll start to get recognition by companies and the rest of the world."

This from a man who had stainless-steel spikes protruding from each ear.

People were cheering and dancing all day, and it's easy to understand why. Snowboard cross is what happens when four skateboarders play NASCAR on a bobsled track. It's considered halfpipe's nerdy cousin because it's viewed as a science while halfpipe is an art. Whoops, waves, banks, spines and kickers make up a variety of terrains and obstacles for riders who are traveling 40 mph at certain points. It's wild.

Wescott is a former Olympic halfpiper who switched over to snowboard cross when it officially became an Olympic sport two years ago. He was trailing halfway through the race Thursday before making a hairpin turn, blowing past Radoslav Zidek and beating the Slovakian by half a board at the finish line. Dude ripped it, and that was after a terrible hole shot. Translation: It means he had a terrific run after a slow start.

Dudette Lindsey Jacobellis rode to a snowboard cross silver today, joining U.S. women Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler (halfpipe) on the podium.

"Hey, I sure think it's cool," U.S. snowboard coach Pete Foley said. "They amaze me every day we train. We go out to the course, and we'll be looking at the jumps and I'll be like, 'Wow, that looks pretty hairy.' "

They don't need medals. They need their heads examined. But after awhile, you start wishing you were them. Adults look at college kids and envy them for having so much fun and so few worries. Snowboarders look at college kids and say, "Why would some dude go to college when he can be riding?"

Eight years ago, when snowboarding made its Olympic debut in Nagano, riders were treated like outcasts after Canadian Ross Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana. People whined how the sport invented by the X Games was a way of getting Americans more medals. Stuffy alpine skiers thumbed their noses, blew it off as another gimmick.

The sport made a recovery four years later in Salt Lake City, when snowboarders proved they were free-spirited, fun-loving kids having a great time. The Americans gained respect for their competitiveness when they swept the medals in halfpipe, and the sport took off. Six of the country's 10 medals have been earned by snowboarders this year (Danny Kass won the silver behind White), so dudes are ripping it. The sport has taken its place in America's mainstream, especially among the young.

"In 2002, the American pipe guys came out and put on an amazing show, and that got the buzz going," Wescott said. "Seeing the halfpipe guys and girls throw down the way they did and for us to make history, I think snowboarding is really becoming the heart and soul of the Olympic Games."

Dude's right. Ask any American teen for Shaun White's nickname. Then ask him what he knows about Daron Rahlves.


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