VERNON, N.J. — When Andy Finch reaches the bottom of the hill, finally still enough to be discerned as anything more than a blur of tumbling color, he grins broadly, his hair unfurling from beneath his helmet like wisps of chestnut smoke.
It is the cold of the New Jersey winter morning, perhaps, that keeps him from combusting on the spot. Though he doesn't know it yet, Finch has just won a spot on the United States Olympic snowboarding halfpipe team - perhaps the hippest mop-haired foursome since the Beatles - and the hill seems to be trembling, still, from the kinetic force of his performance.
The run is a statement carved in the hillside itself - and visible from as far away as Turin, Italy: Four years after US riders swept the men's halfpipe medals in Salt Lake City, they are poised to do it again.
This weekend's event was the last US qualifier for the Turin Games next month, and the four men and four women of the team stepped into the press tent afterward to proclaim to the country that they were, in fact, both "stoked" and "pumped."
After two Winter Olympiads, the ladies and gentlemen of the snowboarding team are still ill- fitted for the classical image of the Olympian. Somewhere, skulking in the back of a high school math class, there is surely someone who looks like Shaun White - a gangly teenager with a toothy grin and thatch of untidy hair that could scare the teeth off a comb.
But put him in a trough of hardpacked snow, and he becomes Pythagoras in baggy pants, twisting his wire-thin body in an incomprehensible proof of aerial geometry.
In 2002, the event was must-see stuff. In 2006, it could be an entertaining rerun.
Mason Aguirre, Duluth, Minn.
Andy Finch, Fresno, Calif.
Danny Kass, Hamburg, N.J., (2002 silver medalist)
Shaun White, Carlsbad, Calif.
Gretchen Bleiler, Aspen/Snowmass Village, Colo.
Kelly Clark, Mount Snow, Vt., (2002 gold medalist)
Elena Hight, Zephyr Cove, Nev.
Hannah Teter, Belmont, Vt.