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Snowboarders get big air(time)

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Kelly Clark of United States takes to the air during practice at Olympic snowboard stadium in Bardonecchia.

Kelly Clark of United States takes to the air during practice at Olympic snowboard stadium in Bardonecchia.

Diether Endlicher, Associated Press

DETROIT — Move over, figure skating?

Maybe not quite, but buoyed by the popularity of the Winter X Games, snowboarding is enjoying a growth-spurt as far as Olympic organizers are concerned.

Added to the program at the 1998 Nagano Games, the sport entered the mainstream at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, where a capacity crowd of more than 16,500 saw Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas sweep the men's halfpipe medals.

The sweep was the first for the Americans in any sport at the Winter Games since 1956, when they won three medals in men's figure skating.

On the women's side, Kelly Clark, with Blink 182 in her headphones, won America's first gold medal of the Salt Lake Games, in the halfpipe.

Viewers at home took notice as well.

NBC saw viewership among people ages 18-34 increase 23 percent over Nagano. The biggest jump, the network noted, was among men in that age group, with a 26 percent increase over Nagano.

Capitalizing on the popularity of so-called extreme sports among teens and fans in their 20s, the International Olympic Committee added a third men's and women's snowboarding event for Torino to join halfpipe and parallel giant slalom: snowboard cross.

In snowboard cross, athletes navigate an alpine course filled with moguls, waves and spines (jumps with 90-degree angles). Riders race in groups of four, with the top two in each heat going through to the next round until just four are left to contest the final

Doug Wren of Ferndale, who has taught skiing for 39 years, including the last eight as ski school instructor for the Oakland County-based Winter Walden Ski Club, said snowboarding is popular with teens and pre-teens. He noted that local ski areas such as Mt. Brighton and Alpine Valley have improved their terrain parks and halfpipes.

"Snowboarding has a slower start up. It takes longer to get going," said Wren, 55. "So for a lot of kids it depends on the frustration level. But once they do take off, they really take off."

So whom to watch in Torino? Begin with Shaun White, a 19-year-old millionaire and skateboard champ from California whose helmet is equipped with an iPod.

White, nicknamed "The Flying Tomato" because of his wild red hair, won all five Grand Prix qualifiers leading up to the selection of the U.S. Olympic men's halfpipe team. (Highland's Danny Davis was in contention until the final event.) White will lead what is turning out to be one of the strongest halfpipe teams in the world.

He will be joined in Torino by Kass, the 2002 silver medalist, and newcomers Andy Finch and Mason Aguirre.

Clark returns to her defend her gold medal . She will be joined by Olympic rookies Gretchen Bleiler, Hannah Teter and Elena Hight.