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Lindsey Jacobellis : Olympic snowboarding to be biggest, best yet

Four years ago, an American snowboarder named Shaun White wowed Olympic crowds by spinning his way to gold above the halfpipe, one of the marquee events of the Winter Games.

In Vancouver, Olympic snowboarding promises to be even bigger.

The halfpipe will be bigger, the air will be bigger and even a once-diminutive White, who's been spending more time in the gym, will be bigger.

No longer on the fringe of the mainstream sports world, snowboarding is now taken more seriously than ever.

"He was a pretty small guy - you see him now, the guy has worked out,'' Canadian halfpipe coach Tom Hutchinson said of White.

"He's gotten big because he realizes that the crashes are getting so hard. You need to be in good shape.''

If all goes according to plan at the Vancouver Games, Canada's snowboarding medal haul will be bigger, too.

White, back to defend his title, is an action-sports star whose presence in Vancouver will grab lots of attention.

But not to be lost under the mountain of hype is a Canadian snowboard team packed with podium potential in all three Olympic disciplines: halfpipe, parallel giant slalom and snowboard cross.

Team Canada will be led by Jasey-Jay Anderson, an alpine elder heading into his fourth Olympics, and a pair of women, Maëlle Ricker and Dominique Maltais, who have been burning up World Cup snowboard-cross courses.

Riders from Canada's supporting cast are also expected to snap up podium spots and help the country reach its Olympic snowboarding goal of five medals.

Since snowboarding debuted in 1998, Canada has won just two Olympic medals in the sport.

Ross Rebagliati won the first-ever Olympic snowboarding gold at the 1998 Nagano Games in giant slalom, even though he briefly lost the medal after testing positive for marijuana.

Canadians will again be looking to Maltais, who captured the 2006 bronze in the first Olympic snowboard-cross event, to win hardware in Vancouver.

Her unbridled discipline, sometimes referred to as NASCAR on snow, proved to be a popular addition to the Olympic lineup four years ago.

Four riders at a time attack the same narrow, treacherous track in the elimination rounds, offering spectators a spread of explosive crashes and daring moves.

Canada's medal hopes will also rest on the shoulders of Ricker, No. 1 in World Cup standings.

Ricker and third-ranked Maltais have reached the podium together in four of the five World Cup races this season.

Each of the Canadian men also have outside shots at the podium: Robert Fagan, Drew Neilson, Mike Robertson and François Boivin.

The courses are steeper, the banks are sharper and the snowboards are better, Maltais said.

"It just makes us faster,'' she said. "It was a new discipline and it just keeps improving.''

Fagan said the riders will be carrying a little more beef compared to 2006.

"Some of the boys walking around - for sure they could be hockey players,'' said Fagan, who spends more time in the weight room than ever before.

"Crashes happen all the time ... you need to make sure you're bouncing back really quick and the gym is the key for that.''

American Lindsey Jacobellis made headlines four years ago when she lost the gold medal while showboating on the second-last jump of the final.

Sensing a comfortable lead, Jacobellis reached down, grabbed her board as she sailed through the air. The hot-dogging trick threw her off balance and she fell on her back.

Jacobellis, who scrambled to her feet to salvage the silver, will be a gold-medal contender in Vancouver.

Pierre Vaultier of France has dominated the men's field this season with four golds and a silver in five events, while Americans Nate Holland and 2006 Olympic champ Seth Wescott remain top threats.

Heavy lifting in preparation for the Olympics hasn't been reserved for just the athletes, as warm temperatures and heavy rain have been melting snow off the hills of Vancouver's North Shore.

Organizers recently started pushing snow from higher elevations and hauling it in by the truckload to cover bare patches on Cypress Mountain, the site of all Olympic snowboarding events.

Regardless of the course conditions, Canada is expecting results from its snowboarding team.

Canada Snowboard received $8.2 million from Canada's $117-million Own The Podium program, created to help athletes win more medals than any other country at the Games.

The only sports to receive more funding are alpine skiing, freestyle skiing and long-track speedskating.

Canada's parallel giant slalom team invested a chunk of its share into designing a new mechanical plate system, which connects the bindings to the snowboard.

Anderson said the new equipment allows the team to ride faster around the gates.

"I know we're way ahead (of other countries) on the board side and on the plate side,'' said Anderson, 34, who has long struggled with technological problems.

The alpine racers have also added more power to their frames.

Alexa Loo's trainer told her to gain 10 pounds over the summer, but after months of stuffing her face and cramming in more workouts, she fell a couple of pounds short of the goal.

"Eight's a lot for a girl to put on over a summer,'' said Loo, who could surprise and hit the podium in the wide-open women's field.

"I did my best.''

Anderson, the reigning world champion, Matthew Morison and Michael Lambert, a star of MTV Canada's reality-TV show Over The Bolts, are all medal threats.

But they will likely have to beat a pair of strong Austrians - Benjamin Karl and Andreas Prommegger - on their way to the podium.

When asked recently about which country has the strongest team in parallel giant slalom, Karl, the World Cup points leader, only wasted half a second before giving an answer.

"For sure, the Canadians,'' Karl said. "There are three riders who can win every time.''

The evolution of snowboarding is even more evident in the halfpipe.

Boarders will drop down the seven-metre ice walls of Cypress Mountain's "superpipe,'' about a metre-and-a-half taller than the pipe at the 2006 Turin Games.

The superpipes enable riders soar higher - sometimes more than six metres above the top of the wall.

Athletes love the wider transition zones, considered safer than their predecessors.

"If it's done properly, it's so much more progressive,'' said U.S. podium contender Gretchen Bleiler, the 2006 Olympic silver medallist.

"You can drop in with so much more speed.''

Americans dominated the halfpipe four years ago, winning gold and silver in both the men's and women's events.

Top U.S. riders like White, Louie Vito, Bleiler, Hannah Teter and Kelly Clark expect to grab more medals, but the international field has been narrowing the gap.

In a few short years, the Chinese women's team, led by 2009 World Cup champ Liu Jiayu , have become a force.

Japanese riders like 2009 world champ Ryoh Aono and Kazuhiro Kokubo have developed into podium threats on the men's side.

Kokubo (bronze) and Switzerland's Iouri Podladtchikov (silver) joined gold-medal winner White on the podium at last week's Winter X Games.

"This year it's different - everyone's caught up,'' Bleiler said.

Any Canadian medals in the deep halfpipe fields would be considered a surprise.

The women - Sarah Conrad, Mercedes Nicoll and Palmer Taylor - and the men - Jeff Batchelor, Justin Lamoureux and Brad Martin - will have to really step it up for a podium spot.

The biggest difference in halfpipe has been the rapid development of new tricks.

White won halfpipe gold in 2006 with back-to-back 1080s - three full spins.

At the X Games, he landed back-to-back double corks and a Double McTwist 1260 in a single run. The difficult - and dangerous - moves involve multiple flips while spinning off-axis.

White, the man to beat in Vancouver, can't believe how much pipe riding has advanced.

"This year's been crazy because I've changed my run like 10 times because of the progression of all the riders around me,'' he said in an interview.

"It's come so far."

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