Gold targets heaven in a halfpipe
NEW YORK (Reuters) - If her surname is any indication of what she can achieve, Arielle Gold really was born to win.
Now, the American teenager has the chance to fulfill her destiny as she prepares to compete in one of the most exciting and dangerous sports at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
The 17-year-old snowboarder is entered in the women's halfpipe and despite being among the youngest members of a star-studded American team, she has emerged as one of the favorites after a meteoric rise over the past 18 months.
Gold first came to prominence in 2012 when she won two silver medals, in the halfpipe and slopestyle, at the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Austria. Later that year, she won gold in the halfpipe at the world junior championships in Spain.
In early 2013, she won her first senior world championship in Quebec, Canada aged just 16, becoming the second youngest competitor ever to win the title.
A week later, she won bronze at the Winter X Games in her home state of Colorado after getting a late call-up as an alternate when one of her older team mates withdrew injured.
And now, she is on the verge of heading to her first Olympics, training and competing with the women who inspired her to take up the sport.
"I've been looking up to these guys ever since I started snowboarding," she said.
"Just getting to train and compete alongside them has been huge for me and now I am starting to become pretty good friends with them and that's awesome."
If Gold's moniker was part of her destiny, then snowboarding was preordained as her ride to success.
She was born into a world of snow and ice, raised in Steamboat Springs, a winter ski resort in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
She learnt to ski when she was three then switched to snowboarding when she was seven, copying her older brother Taylor, who won a silver medal in the halfpipe at the 2011 world junior titles and has competed for the U.S. senior team at two world championships.
"Taylor made it look like so much fun," said Gold.
Fun, it may seem, but it is also a sport with serious perils as competitors fly down the icy pipe then launch themselves off the towering sides, flipping themselves over and over before landing back on the ice and doing it all again.
Injuries are common and can be serious with the hard ice offering no comfort to snowboarders when they crash.
Unfazed by the fear of falling, Gold has spent the past year working on harder and more elaborate tricks and living the snowboarder's dream.
She spent the offseason training in New Zealand, treating herself to a skydive, and made an early trip to Sochi to check out the super-fast halfpipe where she hopes to win the gold.
"It's hard to stay controlled because you are going so fast," she said. "It's scary but it's pushing the level of riding."
Gold's rapid progress has rubbed off on her older team mates, who have been forced to raise their own levels to compete with the young woman leading the next generation.
"This is such a great sport in that we are all great friends. We all just get better from one another," said Gretchen Bleiler, a silver medalist in the halfpipe at Turin 2006 and a four-time gold medalist in the superpipe at the Winter X Games.
"Arielle definitely sprung onto the scene big time last year, she had so many podiums. It's just a cool crew we have here. We can all just get inspired by one another."
(Editing by John O'Brien)