SALT LAKE CITY — Her gloved hands tightened on the handles of her ski poles. She could hear a voice sounding the countdown checklist: "Judges ready; timers ready...."
She was. Shannon Bahrke of Tahoe, a Californian and an unblushing American with strips of red, white, and blue paint prancing at the corners of her eyes. But at this moment, she was a super-energized citizen of her own universe, because at the signal to go she launched herself into the skier's cosmos of snow and ice shards and thin air. It was a swift and whirling journey down the mountain that rattled her teeth and flung her into the surreal. And at the end of it was America's first medal in these Olympics, Shannon Bahrke's.
Do you want to know how to navigate those monstrous moguls that seem to leap at the skier like the dark goblins of a fairy tale?
"Think about driving a car," Bahrke said.
Be serious, girl.
"No, I mean that. Skiing through moguls is like driving a car. You can't focus just on what's directly in front of you. You have took look beyond that. But skiing in the Olympics, going for a medal, was a dream. It was absolute fun, totally awesome. You can believe that. That's why I couldn't figure out why I woke up Saturday before the competition feeling totally numb. I don't know what it was. Maybe the day was that big. I told one of my teammates about it. And she said I'd get over it."
How did she?
Incredibly, Bahrke was smiling when she flew out of the gate to start her run. This was her element - the crowds, the electricity, and in front of her an almost vertical field of snow filled with enormous mushrooms called moguls. She was effervescent and unquenchable and she wasn't bashful about her goal. She wanted the world to discover a new Miss Moguls. And was that actually gold glitter visible on her eyelids? It was. Call it the confetti she hoped to sprinkle on her own Yellow Brick Road to the Olympic podium.
She got there, to the thunderous salutes from the crowd that filled the recesses of Deer Valley at the finish of the women's moguls run. The Americans who stomped their feet for her didn't care, nor did she, that her gold had turned to silver, her medal for second place behind Norway's Kari Traa. When the final rankings were announced, she threw herself into a delirium that swept over her hundreds of fans and friends and the thousands of her countrymen celebrating America's first medal of the Salt Lake City games.
You got the impression then and in the weekend aftermath that Shannon Bahrke is rarely going to be blown away by the lurking threats of inhibition. And why should she? She is 21, full of energy and lifted by the wings of freedom on the mountain. Her cachet is free skiing. She darts and bobs through the moguls, leaps into her helicopter spins, and laughs at gravity with her body's pinwheels and splits.
Millions of weekend skiers have to wonder how they do it; and millions in the television multitudes watching the Winter Olympics must secretly want to tune in on the workings of the skier's brain and glands at that moment before takeoff.
"I just told myself this was a great moment to be an American athlete skiing in an Olympics in America. I could hear those countdowns, and I just told myself, 'Go for it.' I just love the speed and I love those turns. I didn't feel pressure. I just wanted to fly down that hill. When I finished and saw my score and I was No. 1 at that point, I thought I might win the gold. But Kari was about to come down and I was actually rooting for her. Not to beat me. I'm human. I wanted to win. But I owe so much to her, so many skiers do, and she's my friend. When she finished I wanted to hug her, and I did."
So here is a young woman, full of the gusto of life and competition, not worried about whether somebody is going to ask her what comes after an hour like this. The medal doesn't tell her who she is, she insists. She played trumpet in a symphonic band in her high school years, so she knows Mozart and she knows the wind. She knows something about pharmacy, which is her major in college, and she wants to be a dancer and who knows what else? She has a boyfriend named Jeff Lewis who is, of course, "absolutely wonderful," but she paused to ponder the true significance of an Olympic medal in the life of Shannon Bahrke, 21.
The Olympic medal, she said, doesn't identify her as a human being.
"What it means is that I found something worth working and dreaming for, and I achieved that. It is something I can carry the rest of my life, and build on."
Sometimes even gravity gives way to the unsinkable human will.
If you've won the local lottery, come to Salt Lake and buy a seat for the Olympic figure skating championships.
It's going to cost you more than a thousand dollars for prime seating at the blockbuster events in the Winter Olympics: the figure skating and the men's hockey finals. You can find lower prices for more distant seats, and all of those numbers might fluctuate, because in Utah they don't throw you in jail for scalping tickets.
The Olympics, Salt Lake Olympics head Mitt Romney has explained, cost money. That they do. Many of the big draws are already sold out. You can get into some of the less popular venues out on the slopes for $65 or so. Women's freestyle skiing on Feb. 21 will run $500 to $800 - for the lesser seats that are still available. If you want to watch the figure skating dance competition Feb. 17, you'll need $600 apiece for the best seats. Closing ceremonies: $850. You have 10 days to make up your mind.