Lifetime of choices pays off in gold for Bright
WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The journey began a decade ago when Torah Bright and older brother Ben decided to ditch their skis for a snowboard.
It was a choice that forced them to leave their native Australia and hop from continent to continent in search of facilities, competition and sponsorship, because snowboarding just isn’t something they do much Down Under.
Maybe they will now.
The gritty 23-year-old Torah soared to gold in the women’s halfpipe Thursday, shaking off a fall during the first run of the finals to end the United States’ run atop the podium. In the stands, her parents Marion and Peter made a surprise appearance to watch the biggest night of her life.
Bright posted a score of 45 to beat defending champion Hannah Teter by 2.6 points Thursday. Kelly Clark was third, giving her a bronze medal to bookend the gold she captured at the Salt Lake City Games eight years ago.
In a final filled with falls and lacking in the fireworks provided by Shaun White in the men’s competition 24 hours earlier, Bright provided the drama.
She cruised through qualifying, posting the top score and earning the right to go last in the finals. Then her momentum vanished moments into her first run, when she washed out and received a 5.9, worst in the 11-rider field.
The low score mean she had to go first on the second run, giving her less than 10 minutes to regroup. Not that there was much need for a head check.
“I was like, ‘Oh well, can’t change that,”‘ she said. “I tell myself the same things going into any run, any event. It’s just to have fun and I looked down and I was like, ‘We’re going to put on a good show and I’m going to do what I know how to do best.”‘
Throwing together a series of tricks that have put her at the leading edge of the sport, she told the rest of the field “come and get me.”
Not Clark, considered the favorite coming in for her ability to soar higher than her competitors. She struggled during her first run and a couple of wobbles on the second relegated her in third.
Not Teter, who led after the first round but landed awkwardly twice during her second run.
Not 2006 silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler, who stumbled in the finals and finished 11th.
Nobody could beat the girl who moved away from Coomba, New South Wales a decade ago, intent on pursuing her passion even if it meant becoming a snowboarding nomad.
She’s gotten used to it, and it’s helped she’s had Ben – who also serves as her coach – at her side.
“We’ve sacrificed a lot for this moment, traveling the world and leaving home at such a young age,” Ben Bright said.
Peter and Marion offered to bring a little bit of Australia to Vancouver, but she told them to stay in Coomba and save their money to attend her wedding to fiance Jake Welch in June.
After a decade watching their children roam the earth, Peter and Marion weren’t going to let a little six-hour drive north to Sydney and 20 hours on a plane keep them from Cypress Mountain.
Their trip remained a secret to Torah and Ben, but keeping it wasn’t easy. When the two popped into the house they’re staying at for the games on Wednesday afternoon, Peter and Marion ducked into a closet.
Bright didn’t see her folks until she’d completed her final run. She clasped her hands over her mouth in shock.
The surprises were just starting.
Clark came in as the favorite. She’d dominated the competition in the run-up to the games and was riding as well as ever. Yet the 26-year-old couldn’t summon enough magic during her second run.
Teter took the lead following her first run and was hoping to knock Bright off the top of the podium. It didn’t happen, though the medals by Clark and Teter gave the United States 14 of the 24 medals since the halfpipe debuted in Nagano 12 years ago.
This time, however, the top of the podium belonged to an Aussie.
“Torah was ‘on fi-yah,”‘ said Teter, who will donate the money she receives from the U.S. Olympic Committee for her silver medal to Haitian disaster relief.
Bright is considered one of the most physically gifted riders in the world, one that’s unafraid to tackle some of the toughest tricks.
She’s been tinkering with a “double cork” – a move that requires riders to flip twice – though she didn’t do it in Vancouver because the walls offered little room to stick the landing. The trick is popular with the guys, but no girl has been able to land it in competition.
At least, not yet.
Bright will keep it in her back pocket for now. She didn’t need it to win gold. She will if she wants to keep her spot at the front of the line.
“I guess you’d call her a captain of industry at the moment for the girls,” her brother, Ben Bright, said. “She’s progressive with the products that she brings to the sport and she’s progressive with the tricks.”
All that risk has taken a considerable physical toll. Bright has struggled to stay healthy, suffering through a shoulder injury that required surgery last year and the road back has been bumpy. She returned to competition in October but had to skip the X Games after slamming her head twice in three days.
Bright hugged her brother after clinching the gold while a crowd of fans – one of them holding a sign that read “Torah, we adore ya” – roared its approval.
The fan club quickly grew. As Bright made her way through the interview area following the flower ceremony a phone rang. On the other end was Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, and Bright said they had a brief “lovely” chat.
This doesn’t happen at the X Games.
“The Olympics is something special, no doubt about it,” Bright said.
So is having your parents there to watch it. It made up for the long stretches away from Australia, a land known more for its white beaches and surfing than shredding through the snow.
That all might change now.
Asked what Bright’s victory means for her homeland, teammate Holly Crawford said “every girl in Australia is going to want a snowboard.”
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