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Park City's Stone is golden aerialist

Park City is home to a new kind of Stone, now colored gold and green.

That would be U.S. freestyle aerialist Nikki Stone, Park City resident of four years and Winter Olympics gold medalist of late. And the green? Her golden finish at the women's aerial finals Wednesday at the Iizuna Kogen Ski Area means she pockets a cool $20,000 bounty from the U.S. Olympic Committee as well as reaping the financial rewards of future endorsements.And all of this from someone who not only defies gravity in reaching heights of some 60 feet above a cold, hard slope but one who disregarded doctors' recommendations two years ago that she give up jumping because of the damage done to her back.

"They told me I should never jump again," said Stone moments after her first-place finish, "and I proved all the doctors wrong.

"I told myself all along that the Olympic gold was what I was aiming for," she added. "I kept telling myself every time I was in pain, every time I was coming back: `Think of the gold, think of the gold, think of the Olympics.' And it all came together."

Came together? That's an understatement, considering the way Stone - Utah's first Winter Olympics gold medalist in recent memory soared above her international competition Wednesday.

Ranked fourth following Monday's aerial eliminations, Stone first performed a difficult full-double-full - the double being the number of somersaults and the full meaning one body twist - for a 98.15 point total, nearly 10 points ahead of her closest of 11 competitors in the first of two rounds.

The 1997 psychology graduate from New York's Union College then practiced her field of study before the second jump, telling herself to stay calm and focused and to not think too far ahead. And she never considered altering her final jump - a lay-triple-full, with the lay being an invert maneuver where the body is stretched out similar to a swan dive - in order to take a more cautious road to the gold.

Stone connected on her second jump - scored a 94.85 for a two-jump combined total of 193.00. Sensing the inevitability of a gold medal, she rushed into the arms of her boyfriend, Michael Spencer, on the outskirts of the finish area.

"When I landed, I knew I had won the gold," Stone said.

The two bounced in an embrace, with no words exchanged. "She was crying . . . happy," said Spencer, a former freestyle moguls skier. "I can't even speak any words, and I didn't even do anything out there."

Stone watched her final three challengers, and not even the day's top score - a 99.40 for a full-double-full - by China's Nannan Xu could come close to breaking Stone's grip on the gold. Xu finished second (186.97) for the silver, while the bronze went to Switzerland's Colette Brand (171.83).

With the results final, Stone sprinted again back to Spencer for another series of hugs and impatiently waited for her parents, Richard and Nancy, to climb over several restraining fences for more friends-and-family embraces.

"I'm just so excited to share it with them," Stone said. "A gold medal has been my dream. It's everything I've ever wanted in my life."

Her first Olympic ambitions would have been in another sport, since Stone competed in regional gymnastics for a dozen years. Only a recreational skier at the time, she got hooked on the fun of freestyle after watching an aerial water-ramp competition on television. For Stone, her two sports meshed naturally into aerials.

"She's a thrill seeker," Spencer said. "She loves adrenaline. She can't get enough of it."

And for the 5-foot-8 blonde who turned 27 years old just days before the Nagano opening ceremonies, her gold-medal exploits complete a circle to the top of the international aerial scene.

Stone won the 1995 World Championship gold medal and captured the same-season's World Cup overall title as well. But less than a year later, Stone was suffering from a serious back injury, resulting in the constant pounding from landings both missed and made.

Two years ago to the month, doctors were encouraging her to give up the sport. But a little more than a year later, she was back in her full-training routine, including ramp and trampoline work, weights and aerobics, hoping to negate the injury.

"It will never go away," said Spencer of Stone's bad-back condition. "She has had to build up her muscles to compensate for it. She's at 100 percent, but it will always be nagging."

Added U.S. coach Wayne Hilterbrand of Stone's hard work: "Nikki Stone put in more training days last summer than the three previous years combined."

A former University of Utah student, Stone credited her extensive training in Park City as ample preparation for the feat in Nagano. So, does she anticipate a gold-medal defense in 2002 on her home turf in Utah?

"I don't know. I'm not thinking that far ahead. I'm just thinking about enjoying all the excitement right now."