PARK CITY, Utah - In Eric Bergoust's mind, there are only two acceptable places to finish in aerial skiing. You can go for it all, stick the landing and finish first, or you can go for it all, crash the landing and finish last.
He has now experienced both.
Leading the aerial competition yesterday and needing just one more solid jump to claim his second straight Olympic gold medal, Bergoust crashed in dramatic fashion, falling on his back and watching any hopes of a medal slip away.
"I had to go for it on that one and went for it a little too much," said Bergoust, who was a heavy favorite to repeat after he won gold in Nagano, Japan, but finished 12th out of 12 jumpers in the finals. "I had too much energy on takeoff, and I couldn't slow myself down. I knew it right away I couldn't land it."
Bergoust's loss was Ales Valenta's gain. Valenta, of the Czech Republic, claimed the gold with a score of 257.02, in the process becoming the first man to land a jump of five twists and three flips in Olympic competition. American Joe Pack, who grew up in Park City, did his hometown proud, earning the silver with a score of 251.64. Alexei Grichin of Belarus took the bronze with a score of 251.19.
"I've landed that jump just three times," said Valenta, who had never landed it in competition. "I used it as my lucky shot at a medal, and it worked out. I'm really happy right now. I don't think I can really believe what I've done. It hasn't hit me yet."
For Pack, a football and soccer star at Park City High School, it was a glorious day of homecoming. The stands were packed with red, white and blue signs with Pack's name on them, and when he landed his second jump, the crowd went wild.
"It was unbelievable," Pack said. "I heard them yelling at the top, and it makes it all worth it. To hear the crowd yell like that probably pushed me back about 10 feet when I landed."
Few outside of Park City could have predicted Pack's success. He made the U.S. team only because of a coaches' discretionary pick but proved he was plenty worthy with two excellent jumps.
No one could have predicted Bergoust's wipeout, especially after his first jump, which was so good that he received a near-perfect score, putting him well ahead. The No. 1-ranked aerial jumper in the world, Bergoust hadn't crashed on his final jump with the lead in four years, and hadn't finished out of the top 10 in 13 months. But after Valenta nailed his five twists - a jump Bergoust had experimented with but never mastered - Bergoust said he had to go big and be perfect if he wanted to win.
"I couldn't have lived with being fourth," Bergoust said. "I just got a little too much speed coming down, maybe a kilometer an hour faster than I should have. In this sport, that's enough to throw everything off."
The first thing he thought of when he crashed?
"Good for Ales," Bergoust said. "It couldn't have happened to a better guy. He'll be a great ambassador for the sport."
And the second thing that went through Bergoust's mind?
"I guess I won't get invited to be on [David] Letterman this time," he said.
Bergoust did say he would be back to try to qualify for the Winter Olympics in 2006, which will be held in Turin, Italy. He also predicted that Valenta's jump may have changed aerial skiing for the better.
"He really pushed the limits, and now everyone is going to have to do the same," Bergoust said. "We've been doing four twists for about 10 years now, but I think by the next Olympics everyone will be trying for five. I knew Ales could do five twists and come up with a huge score. It was kind of a risky decision on my part not to learn five twists last summer, but I've got one gold medal, so I'm still happy."