KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Kaitlyn Farrington didn’t expect to win gold in women’s halfpipe snowboarding. She didn’t even qualify for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games until she nailed her run in the final Olympic qualifier less than a month ago. Then in Sochi, three Olympic gold medalists were in the halfpipe finals with her.
But then on a spring-like night at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, the petite 24-year-old from Sun Valley, Idaho, rode two solid, stylish runs and won her own Olympic gold medal.
“It was crazy sitting at the bottom,” said Farrington, looking happily stunned. “I was stoked I landed my run, and to have to watch all the other Olympians come down,” she paused, then repeated, “I was stoked I landed my run.”
With Kelly Clark earning her second bronze medal — and third total Olympic medal — U.S. women have won over half of the Olympic medals awarded since halfpipe snowboarding debuted at the 1998 Games. Torah Bright, the 2010 defending gold medalist, took the silver medal.
The night belonged to Farrington though, who came to Sochi as the U.S. team’s underdog. Hannah Teter, the 2006 gold and 2010 silver medalist, knew better, though.
“Nobody can count [Kaitlyn] out ever,” said Teter, who ended up fourth. “She’s just style, so much style, judges seem to be rewarding that heavily, clean style. Who would have thought she was going to win this thing? I don’t think anybody knew that was coming. Surprise, surprise.”
While Clark, Teter and Bright all advanced straight to the final from afternoon qualifying, Farrington had to compete in the semifinal. Arielle Gold never made it to qualifying. She fell during practice and withdrew from the competition with a shoulder injury.
Riding all day was Farrington’s plan. It would give her more practice.
“When you’re young coming into it, you have no expectations,” said Teter. “[Kaitlyn] came into it to have fun. We came up here together today, and she was in good spirits and having a good time, dancing all the time like she always does.”
Farrington even danced as she stood in the leader’s box, awaiting her fate. Her second run score of 91.75 put her in the lead. But Teter, Bright and Clark were still to come. Teter fell her second run, leaving her behind Farrington. Bright went huge but landed rough off one landing and couldn’t pull past Farrington.
Finally four-time Olympian Kelly Clark was up. The winningest snowboarder in history, 30-year-old Clark fell hard on her first run. The 2002 gold and 2010 bronze medalist then had to regroup for her second run. It wasn’t her cleanest run ever, but a 90.75 — awarded after a painfully long wait — put her on the podium with a bronze medal to match the one she won at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“It’s a very difficult situation to fall on the first run in a final,” Clark said. “I didn't land one run in practice all night, and I fell on my first run. Then to land my final run as the final rider in an Olympic final was a huge achievement for me.”
Anxiously watching were Farrington’s parents, Gary and Suz, who were holding a small sign that read, “Kaitlyn Farrington, Cowgirl Up” — a saying coined by her former swim coach that had become a family joke. The Farringtons own a ranch near Sun Valley, and Kaitlyn grew up riding horses.
When he realized that his daughter would win a medal, Mr. Farrington wiped tears from his eyes. Then when his daughter won gold, he let it go.
“Are you kidding me?” he shouted. “My little girl!”
Suz Farrington credited Kaitlyn’s smooth style with good balance from riding horses. She was skiing by age 3 and barrel racing at age 5.
“She was skiing on a tether for two days, then said, ‘I’m done with this stuff,’” remembered Mr. Farrington.
Farrington switched to snowboarding but never thought she would compete in the Olympic Winter Games; she doesn’t remember watching Clark win gold at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. By high school though, Farrington was competing, and her parents had to sell the cows on their ranch to pay for expenses.
Riding in the long shadows of Clark, Teter and 2006 silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler, Farrington finally began to shine this year. She only qualified for her first Winter Games in the final qualifier in Mammoth, Calif., where she beat Clark. Then at Winter X Games, Farrington finished third.
Not until she was on the plane to Sochi did she realize that she’s an Olympian. Now she’s an Olympic gold medalist.
“If I didn't win, I’m glad someone from the U.S. did,” said Clark, “so we can hear the national anthem.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.