A foot or two decided Olympic gold in men's snowboard cross Thursday as Austria's Alessandro Haemmerle beat Canada's Eliot Grondin by the nose length of his board in an electrifying big-final finish at the 2022 Winter Games.
Haemmerle, a three-time reigning overall World Cup winner, stuck behind the 20-year-old Grondin for the first half of the race before overtaking him on the inside of a turn. The two battled it out the rest of the way, and Haemmerle's board crossed the finish line first for the victory.
"Eliot [Grondin] just gave it everything. He gave it all every run. He was great, so I knew in the final I had to give it all and I’m glad I was fit enough to beat him at the end," Haemmerle said. "I gave it all and, yeah, am lucky and happy to come out first."
Omar Visintin of Italy took bronze, while No. 2 seed Julian Lueftner, Haemmerle's teammate, finished fourth and off the podium. Visintin dislocated his elbow and ruptured a tendon in December but fought back despite his arm not being at 100%.
American Jake Vedder reached the semifinals but didn't advance, finishing sixth overall. The 2016 Youth Olympic gold medalist and 2018 junior world champion was a late addition to the U.S. team; he replaced 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Alex Deibold, who was injured in a crash last month.
Earlier in the quarterfinals, Vedder knocked out teammate and medal contender Nick Baumgartner, who at 40 would've become the oldest snowboarder to reach an Olympic podium had he accomplished what the top three riders did.
"[I've] put so much work into this, and just wanted to end up on top or at least on the podium – one thing missing, one of these medals," Baumgartner said. "I know it won't define my career but, man, it would have been sweet."
"People fail to understand what it takes, especially at 40 years old. They think I'm lucky, they think all these things but it takes so much work, so much effort, I've got to work 12 hours a day in the summer lots of times. I've got to go from that to the gym, and to put that kind of toll into a 40-year-old body is not easy."
The Michigander said he was hoping to give more to his community of support back home in the Midwest, but one thing's for sure – he's not done yet.
"I am not ending on this, there's no way," he said. "We're going to go to the world championships next year, fight for that, see what we can do there and then I'll have to listen to the body, but I've been pretty good about ignoring everything, I'm just fighting through strength and ignorance, but let's see what happens."
USA's Mick Dierdorff, the 2019 world champion, crashed out in a separate quarterfinal heat, occupying the No. 2 spot for most of the race before losing his balance on Turn 4 and falling over, taking down German Martin Noerl in the process.
"That heat with those guys was one of the heaviest heats I’ve raced my whole life," Dierdorff said. "That was a lot of very, very fast snowboard cross dudes. I’m happy with how I rode, and that was a lot of fun. I wish I was moving on, but am proud of how I did."
"Boardercross is such a crazy sport, and you never know what is going to happen. I’m just so happy and that I did find that fire today and that speed. I love that feeling. Things could have happened just a little differently and it could have been a really, really good day."