BARDONECCHIA, Italy –
Suspended in midair, Seth Wescott's biggest worry was making sure he didn't land on top of his opponent and crush him. Not exactly a typical Olympic moment.
Then again, snowboardcross isn't a typical Olympic sport.
The American racer missed Slovakia's Radoslav Zidek on that tight landing Thursday, then passed him for the win in the Olympic debut of the wild sport of snowboardcross.
For that, Wescott earned a gold medal. Everyone else got warm compresses and aspirin.
"To have a great race like that in the finals, I think it just makes the sport look good," Wescott said.
There was bumping, thrashing, wipeouts and worse during the 90-minutes of NASCAR on Ice, a series of four-man races down the mountain with everyone vying for space on the tight, high-banked, 1,000-yard course.
The women take their turn Friday, with America's biggest snowboardcross star and lone entrant, Lindsey Jacobellis, among the favorites.
In the men's final race, Wescott's winning move stood out for its pure finesse - a sly slip past Zidek with time running out.
Paul-Henri Delerue of France won bronze.
"I was screaming the entire time," said U.S. coach Peter Foley, who called it the best day of snowboardcross he's ever seen.
Wescott would surely agree.
The 29-year-old capped a decade-long quest to become an Olympic medalist, one that took him through the halfpipe and across the rough-and-tumble courses of snowboardcross, his sport's more violent - and maybe more exciting - cousin.
"I think for a lot of people who just see snowboarding in the halfpipe, they might not see all the intricacies of it," Wescott said. "But with this, they love the racing aspect and for all of us, it's one of the things that makes it so exciting to do. I think that translates to the viewing public, too."
On a made-for-TV day in Bardonecchia, Wescott won by being able to stay out of any messes during his four trips down the slope.
In the final, he took the lead from Zidek first by avoiding him on a jump, then picking up speed on the high line of the course and zipping below him after a hard right turn. He led the rest of the way, and beat Zidek to the finish line by about half a board.
"I almost landed on Rado," Wescott said. "I had a bunch of speed coming into that 'hip jump.' I was a little worried in the air that that might be the end of the race right there. I was looking down on him and I wasn't sure exactly where the trajectory was going to put me."
Wescott added this to his win at last year's World Championships, one that set him up as one of the riders to beat in the Turin Games. His career began with mediocre results in the halfpipe, then a switch to racing. He learned in 2003 that snowboardcross - also known as boardercross - would become an Olympic sport.
"After that, it was less a question of whether I would make the team and more a matter of what I would accomplish," he said.
This gold medal was anything but preordained. Nothing is in this sport, as Drew Neilson of Canada can attest.
About five seconds had elapsed before Neilson was involved in the first wreck of the day. The fastest qualifier in the tame morning runs, Neilson got tripped up by Polish competitor Rafal Skarbek-Malczewski, who slipped and slammed into the netting. Neilson bounded down the course, hurting his back and pelvis on the way.
"His nose caught my tail and I was down before you knew it," Neilson said as he limped away from the course. "That's the beauty of it."
It's a sport that can even turn good friends into combatants, as happened between Americans Nate Holland and Jason Smith.
Racing in a tight, four-man pack against Smith in the quarterfinals, Holland took huge air on a jump about one-third of the way down the course - so high that his board could plainly be seen wiggling back and forth in the air.
Holland landed on his backside. He thinks he found himself in the jumble because Smith had slowed down in front of him.
"I don't know what he's doing speed-checking in the course on an Olympic game day," Holland said.
Smith's response: That's racin'.
"There's definitely always contact in the sport," he said. "I didn't realize it was him right there. There was definitely no intentional contact off that jump. That's boardercross. That's why a lot of people come out here to watch it."
Smith finished sixth after consolation heats and Holland came in 14th. The fourth American, late substitute Graham Watanabe, wound up 31st.
The biggest wipeout of the day came in a semifinal near the top of the hill when Spain's Jordi Font appeared to lose his balance, reached out and swiped at Canada's Jasey Jay Anderson.
They slammed into the gate, then gathered themselves up and continued down the hill. Anderson beat Font easily for second, which would have earned him the spot in the finals, but he was disqualified for not keeping his board inside the gate.
Anderson protested, but a video review showed no conclusive evidence to overturn the call and Font, whose crash took him past the correct side of the gate, advanced.
"That's boardercross," Anderson said.
Westcott's medal was the fifth of these Olympics for the Americans in snowboarding, which figures to take another step forward in popularity.
In fact, at about the time Wescott won, halfpipe champion Hannah Teter and silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler were on their way to Florida to serve as starters for Sunday's Daytona 500, the biggest event on NASCAR's schedule.
Given the way he moved around in traffic, surely Wescott would fit in there, too.