Sauerbreij slides through slush for Olympic gold
WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia—If the spectacle of a course worker wringing out the snow with a squeegee didn't tell the story, then the absurdity of the snowboarders riding up the lift with umbrellas certainly did.
The Olympic parallel giant slalom course resembled a Slip-N-Slide on Friday.
Nicolien Sauerbreij of the Netherlands splashed her way through it best.
"You couldn't see anything," said Sauerbreij, the first Dutch snowboarder to win gold. "You were just going, and every bump in the course was a surprise."
Somehow through all that slop and slush, she stayed on her feet for all 10 runs. She won her gold in what is supposed to be the most staid of Olympic snowboarding events -- one that turned into something else.
"It was like jumping into a swimming pool," bronze medalist Marion Kreiner of Austria said.
Sauerbreij overcame a .02-second deficit to Russian Ekaterina Ilyukhina to win the second heat of the gold-medal race by .23. Kreiner beat Selina Joerg for third.
It was a dog of a day, with heavy rain and bitter wind slamming the course and a slow-moving fog rolling in at the end. Umbrellas were every bit as useful as snowsuits. A packed house for qualifying thinned out to only a few, hearty hundred by the time Sauerbreij wrapped up the gold.
Those who stayed saw the kind of flips and spills usually reserved for the PGS' more violent cousin, the four-at-a-time free-for-all of snowboardcross that was run on the same terrain -- differently configured -- last week.
"It was a bit hard, because you went downhill and you couldn't see anything," Ilyukhina said.
Indeed, the event looked nothing like the winter wonderland most Olympic snowboarders might have expected for their biggest day. At least a dozen in the 30-woman field paid a price.
Japan's Tomoka Takeuchi slammed into the catch fence. So did fourth-place finisher Selina Joerg.
Austria's Claudia Riegler wiped out and went hydroplaning across the course, water flying 10 feet over her head.
Amelie Kober of Germany, the silver medalist in 2006 and ranked second this year in World Cup, skidded out and clipped a gate in her quarterfinal race. She was supposed to come back and race in consolation heats but chose, instead, to call it a day and make an announcement.
"I'm pregnant," she said. "That's why I didn't start after I crashed."
That left Anke Karstens to race alone in the consolation heats, and guess what? She fell, too.
It was no day to be on course if there wasn't something big on the line.
Gearing up for Sochi in 2014, Russian athletes can make $100,000 or more for winning gold medals, and Ilyukhina seemed the most unlikely of candidates -- a 22-year-old who hasn't reached a World Cup podium.
She actually fell in her first semifinal race against Kreiner, but not to worry. In heat No. 2, Kreiner had to reach down to keep herself from falling, allowing Ilyukhina to pass for the win.
Par for the course on this day.
"There were instances where I felt like was groping my way around," Ilyukhina said. "Some were more fortunate. Some were less fortunate. I certainly consider myself very fortunate today."
Others among the not-so-lucky included:
--Defending world champion Fraenzi Maegert-Kohli, who wiped out in qualifying and didn't even make it to the heats.
--The 2008-09 World Cup champ, Doris Guenther, who was gone after a round.
--America's only rider, Michelle Gorgone, who led qualifying after the first round, but wound up 13th and was done after the first heats.
--Not surprisingly, Canada's only hope, Alexa Loo, tried to put a good spin on it after she went out in the first round.
"It's just like driving on any Vancouver day," Loo said. "It was actually kind of cool. You could feel the rain spattering against your face."
That worked best for Sauerbreij, who hails from watery Amsterdam and was her country's Olympic flagbearer in 2002. She had a disappointing Olympic debut, though, finishing 24th and faulting it on using the wrong wax on her board that sunny, snowpacked day in Park City.
Whatever she used this time worked.
"We didn't get the best scenario," she said. "But for me, it makes no sense to talk about the weather."