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US snowboardcross veteran Wescott pulls off upset

WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — The flag was tucked away, just in case, because you never know, right?

Seth Wescott brought the American flag once given to his grandfather — a veteran of the U.S. military — to Canada mostly out of habit. He'd waved it in celebration in Italy four years ago after winning gold in snowboardcross, and nobody really expected the 33-year-old from Maine to drape it over his shoulders again in Vancouver.

He was too old. Too beat up.

And, it turns out, too determined to give up his gold without a fight.

"I told my dad 'I'm going to need (the flag) at the finish line,'" Wescott said.

Good thing he's a pack rat.

Wescott survived a shaky qualifying run, three elimination rounds and a seemingly impossible deficit in the finals to rally past Canada's Mike Robertson and collect a second gold medal on Monday at slushy Cypress Mountain.

And suddenly, just like it did four years ago, the flag was draped over his broad shoulders after one of snowboardcross' grand old men pulled off a run for the ages.

"He knows what it takes to get in first, and he's one hell of a rider," said American Nate Holland, who finished fourth. "He's got the skills. He's the full package."

Wescott needed every last ounce of his considerable moxie on Monday. He qualified 17th partly because he couldn't see well in the course's flat light but teamed up with Holland to move into the finals relatively easily — no small feat in an unpredictable sport where little, if anything, goes as planned.

Holland spun out early in the finals, leaving Robertson all alone in search of his country's second gold medal.

And to be honest, Robertson thought he had it. Wescott was simply a small glimpse in Robertson's rearview mirror as he wound his way through the middle of the course.

Wescott, however, didn't panic. He never does. He'd seen on film that Robertson didn't always take the perfect route down the mountain. A gamble here or there and Wescott knew he could get back in the race.

Taking risky lines through the turns in an effort to make up ground, Wescott roared back. A small bobble over a series of mounds by Robertson gave Wescott the lead a few hundred yards from the finish. He held off one last move by the Canadian then thrust his arms skyward as he crossed the finish line. France's Tony Ramoin was a distant third.

"I think I felt (the crowd) collectively get bummed out when I made that pass," Wescott said, "but it is what it is."

And what it was was simply remarkable. A third of the way through the finals, Wescott was cooked. A minute later, he was golden.

"That kind of gap, most people — well, really, nobody, overcomes that," said America's snowboard coach, Peter Foley.

Then again, Wescott was simply fortunate to be here.

He jammed his femur into his pelvis during a race in Colorado in December, couldn't walk for two weeks and wasn't pain free — well, as pain free as he can be at this point in his career — until the X Games in late January.

If it'd been just another World Cup event, he probably would have skipped it. Not the Olympics.

"You need something like this or the X Games or the world championships to get you motivated," he said. "That gives you a level of energy you don't have week in and week out."

Wescott looked spry on Monday, withstanding a vicious tackle from teammate Graham Watanabe after hopping off his board.

Then again, bouncing back is nothing new to Wescott. His father Jim says his son was spit upon as a child growing up in New England because he opted for snowboarding rather than traditional skis.

Not anymore. While Wescott talked to reporters following the win, the entire U.S. Snowboardcross team sat on a riser in the back of the room snapping pictures and taking it all in.

"This has been the focus for the last two years and to pull it off is amazing," Wescott said.

Particularly considering the odds.

Snowboardcross is the Olympics' version of NASCAR, 80 seconds of pushing, shoving and hurtling down a hill at breakneck speed. Success is equal parts talent and daring with a dash of luck thrown in.

Monday was no different. 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 didn't make it out of the quarterfinals.

Last year's World Cup champion, Markus Schairer, came in with broken ribs and left early after a wipeout.

Watanabe, who qualified second, got beat in a photo finish, and teammate Nick Baumgartner, slipped and went sprawling into the netting.

Afterwards, there was no arguing. No anger. That's just not how they do it in snowboardcross. The first person Wescott hugged after winning was Germany's David Speiser simply because they're buddies.

It was a sign of friendship and respect, two things Wescott has earned in spades during his lengthy career.

Wescott and Holland used to dub themselves "Shake and Bake," a nod to the Will Ferrell movie "Talladega Nights." On a day when he could have thought about what might have been, Holland — who has won five straight X Games titles — opted to pay respect to one of his closest friends.

"I guess I'll just let him have the Olys and I'll take control of the X Games and together as teammates we'll just control the two biggest snowboard races in the world," he said.

Wescott will certainly take it.