BARDONECCHIA, Italy - Rosey Fletcher finally saw the big picture, then posted her first big-time Olympic result.
“It’s just snowboarding,” the surprise American bronze medalist said Thursday after joining Swiss juggernaut Daniela Meuli and young German talent Amelie Kober on the podium. “I was really focusing not so much on winning ... it was all about the journey and having fun.”
As they so often do in this Swiss-dominated era of parallel giant slalom, large clanging cowbells announced the winner.
Meuli, the three-time defending world cup champion, gave her country and its red-clad, raucous, flag-waving fans a second PGS gold in as many days. Philipp Schoch won the men’s event Wednesday, with brother Simon winning silver.
Still, as much as she’s used to winning, Meuli craved her first Olympic gold, having finished 20th at the 2002 Games.
“Of course I feel the pressure, from myself and also people around,” Meuli said. “But I always try to take it positive because I told myself, 'Everybody’s believing in you ... what could be better?’ It’s just great that I did it. In the morning it was really hard because I was nervous.”
As it turned out, she didn’t have to work as hard for this victory, cruising across the line in the semifinals after Fletcher’s fall, then winning the championship heat easily after Kober crashed and slid into the safety fence just as it appeared the German might overtake Meuli.
But she wasn’t about to get too fancy — a la snowboardcross silver medalist Lindsey Jacobellis — as she safely steered around the final gates.
“I had seen the race of the women’s snowboardcross — I think you all have seen that — and I said to myself, 'Come on. It’s finished when you are over the finish line,”’ she said, giggling a bit. “I really tried to stay concentrated until I was in the finish line.”
Meuli threw her arms skyward just before crossing the line, then collapsed and slid to a stop on her back with her hands on her head.
In the bronze medal race, Fletcher took a 1.5-second lead in the first run after Austrian Doris Guenther went down. Fletcher still needed to make that lead stand up when she switched to the red course, which had been the slower and more treacherous course throughout the event.
Racing cautiously, Fletcher allowed Guenther to make up ground on the top of the course, but then the American put it in overdrive on the bottom and won comfortably.
She came to a stop bent over with emotion, hands over her goggles. Then the hugs started and the tears flowed.
“Unlike the other two times, I was a dark horse, and I prefer being the dark horse,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher became the first U.S. woman to climb an Olympic podium in a discipline that combines American-invented snowboarding with old-style racing through gates. Because of that, Tom Kelly, the longtime U.S. ski and snowboard team communications director, now must live up to a promise he made to Fletcher back in 1999, when he told her he’d dye his hair blue if she registered a podium finish in the Olympics.
Gorgone never made it to the finals, getting spun around coming past a gate on her first qualifying run, a mistake that cost her too much time.
Fletcher knows all about those kinds of disappointments.
The approachable, oft-smiling Alaskan had once been haunted by a pair of stunning failures in her previous two Olympic appearances. She crashed out in qualifying both times, the 2002 setback especially disappointing because she was ranked third in the world at the time.
“My first two Olympics were just really devastating,” Fletcher said. “I was so devastated after Salt Lake I thought my life was going to end. It was one of those life lessons ... realizing that life’s a lot bigger than this five-ring circus.”
“It was one of those times when things just felt so easy,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher then took a .24 lead over Meuli after the first semifinal run, but the American’s board went out from under her when the pair switched courses, allowing Meuli to coast into the final round.
Rather than dwell on the semifinal failure, Fletcher focused on the bronze medal round.
After making the podium, Fletcher noted a good luck charm she has kept inside her team jacket throughout the games. It’s a “Flat Rosey,” drawn for her by an Alaskan school girl who got the idea after her class read a “Flat Stanley” book.
It resembled Fletcher, blond hair and all.
“It has a first-place medallion around her neck, so that might be the only difference,” Fletcher said. Not that she didn’t feel like a winner.
Check out the best images from the 2006 Winter Olympics.