KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The cows never had names. Kaitlyn Farrington knew better. They were commodities, raised on her parents' ranch in Idaho, sold for profit, the lifeblood of the agrarian lifestyle into which she was born. She was a barrel-racin', mutton-bustin' country girl, the sort who helped her dad with his hay crop.
Every so often, a twang pokes through the façade built up over the past eight years, a small reminder of those cows and what they meant. Every time Farrington needed to travel somewhere to snowboard, her parents would sell a few of them. At one point, Gary and Suz Farrington tended to 250 head. Today, they have none.
"Whatever you've got to do," Gary said. "I mean, now look at what we've got."
Three minutes earlier, he'd hugged his daughter, and didn't want to let go. She was the United States' newest gold medalist, halfpipe snowboarding's newest champion, ranching's newest — and unlikeliest — success story. From the flat of the land to the top of the mountain, Farrington won Team USA its third gold of the Sochi Games — all in snowboarding — and survived the best efforts of the past three Olympic champions to do so.
In addition to her spinning prowess, Farrington exhibited a remarkable amount of patience, sitting at the bottom of Rosa Khutor Extreme Park's halfpipe and waiting for what seemed an interminable amount of time to see whether she would even medal. Thanks to a mediocre qualifying showing, she needed a strong semifinal run to make the finals. Like Iouri Podladtchikov, the men's champion the previous night, she posted the highest score in the semis and kept building on it, getting a 91.75 on her second run in the finals.
She watched American Hannah Teter, the gold medalist in 2006 and leading after the first run, fall short. And then Australian Torah Bright, who won gold in 2010, ended up a half-point behind. And finally American Kelly Clark, the 2002 champ, and still the dominant female snowboarder at 30 years old, dropped into the pipe.
"Go, Kel," Gary said, and he meant it. He was holding an American flag as well as an Australian flag, because he wanted to see Bright succeed, too. Suz clutched an 8½-by-11 picture of Farrington wearing a Christmas hat, with the words COWGIRL UP above her forehead. It's what a swimming coach used to say to her, sweet and folksy, like when she complained about something to her father and he would answer, "Put it on the list."
Clark dropped in, went bigger than Farrington during her run, which had peaked with a backside 900, included an alley-oop 540 and ended with a frontside 720, all clean and smooth and stylish, hallmarks of her riding. Mid-run, Clark couldn't quite get the final 90 degrees of turn on a 1080, and the question was whether that slight bobble would drag down her technical superiority.
They waited on an inflatable bubble, Farrington and the three champions. And they waited some more. And some more. And some more. And some more. And, uh, maybe the judges were out getting a snack.
"When you wait for your score at the Olympics," Clark said, "it always seems to take forever."
Perhaps they got a bootleg copy of "The Wolf of Wall Street" and just couldn't stop watching.
"They were deliberating forever," Teter said.
Maybe the doorknob to the judges' booth broke.
"It was a long wait," Farrington said.
When the score did finally flash a 90.75, giving Bright the silver and Clark the bronze, Farrington's parents jumped. Gary admitted he didn't think Kaitlyn would get gold, not with the three champions still competing. His phone buzzed like he was trying to grab the heart in Operation. Suz kept talking, to no one, to everyone. "This is awesome," she said. "Everything's possible. All right."
"A good day at the office," she said. "A good day."
"I am numb," she said. "I can't feel my hands."
The Olympics are about a lot of things, and most of them are manufactured by an entity that succeeds in profiteering off the saccharine, in perpetuating stories that further their idea of what the Games should mean, when the Games are this and only this: athletes doing what they're not supposed to do — "I don't think anybody knew that was coming," Teter admitted — and parents awesome and good and numbed because years of sacrifice, of choices made for the betterment of their children, led to this. In niche sports, there is no centralized money, no way other than sponsors and benefactors and, in Farrington's salad days, parents.
At heart, the Farringtons are ski bums who tend to horses to bide their time around the mountains. They threw Kaitlyn on skis at 3 years old. Peer pressure pushed her to snowboarding when she was around 10. By the time she was 13, she could shred, putting in long days at Sun Valley Resort in Idaho. One time, her mom went to pick up Farrington. She was soaking wet. Suz asked why. Farrington explained she was jumping a river. She'd done it twice. On the third time, her tail caught on a twig. Sorry, Mom.
Never again did Farrington end up waterlogged. She grew into an even better snowboarder, won contests, grew up in the sport and turned into the 24-year-old with a ring in her left nostril and dimples that plunge like they're scared of the air. She went into these Olympics with few hopes and fewer expectations.
"I was hoping to make finals," Farrington said. "That was kind of my main goal."
Once there, she wanted to podium, and when that was guaranteed, she embraced the idea of gold, and in the aftermath, with everyone wanting to know everything about her, she just wanted to go all Kate Hansen on everyone: "I'm gonna dance my face off."
Before that, she was ferried off to a news conference. Her parents tried to catch a van, but none was going to the media center, so they started on the 10-minute walk over gravel and slush. Suz kept saying she couldn't believe it was real, even though she knew it was.
"Good night," one security worker said.
"Sure is a good night," Gary said, pausing for a second to turn around. "My daughter won the gold medal."