02/27/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST
02/27/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST
GOLD MEDAL, SNOWBOARDING
He had waited for this moment and now it was here, the chance to finally get his hands on—fluffy towels? "I get really stoked about picking up stuff for the house," says snowboarding phenom Shaun White. "I'd go into Target and I'd be like, "Those are some sick towels. Look at thoooooose.'"
Translation: This guy isn't your average dude-speaking, board-riding 19-year-old slacker. For starters he ran away with the gold medal in the awesomely cool Olympic sport of halfpipe snowboarding. A heavy favorite, Shaun lived up to the hype, making risky moves look easy. Yet it was his guileless charm and shock of red hair—hence the nickname the Flying Tomato—that made him the toast of Turin. Already famous among his Gen iPod peers—he has his own clothing line and DVD and will star in an upcoming video game—Shaun was not too hip to cry during the medal ceremony. "I looked over and the whole family is doing the sob," he says. "I shed a couple of tears. It was cool."
Raised in Big Bear, Calif., he had two heart surgeries before he was 1 to fix a genetic defect. His dad, Roger, and mom, Cathy, encouraged his interest in snowboarding but had him ride backward once he started speeding past—helping him become extra agile. Even after he broke bones and fractured his skull in falls, his folks stayed supportive. "They almost lost me [to the defect]," says Shaun, "but they still let me do my thing."
His thing has already earned him more than $1 million in endorsements and five homes—three in California and two in Utah. But it's his new Olympic bling that he hopes will impress his crush: figure skater Sasha Cohen. "I've never been snowboarding before, but I'd love to give it a try one day," Cohen told PEOPLE. "I'm sure I'll be seeing Shaun around."
Note to Sasha: He likes giving cars as gifts. He gave his old one to his sister Kari, 20, and bought a new one for his mother. "It had the backup cam and I was like, "All right, pimp mom cruisin','" he says. (Translation: Mom got a Lexus hybrid.) Yet no one who knows him expects this tomato to spoil. At home "he's still the same kid, goofing off, having fun," says his brother Jesse, 26. "He's not like, "Gimme lattes now.' He's just superchill." (Translation: Oh, figure it out.)
Right before the biggest run of their lives, pals Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler pulled a Laverne and Shirley. They snuck off to a roped-off section of the mountain in Bardonecchia so they could snowboard on virgin snow. "The guards were saying, "You can't go,' so we just jumped under the ropes, strapped in quick and went," says Bleiler, 24. "That's what snowboarding is all about. It's not about sticking to a routine."
Their wacky stunt was a good warm-up: Teter and Bleiler finished first and second in women's halfpipe snowboarding. Born in Toledo, Ohio, and a snowboarder since age 11, Bleiler was favored for gold but walked away thrilled with silver. The Olympics "have been my dream since I was little," says Bleiler, whose nerves had her "screaming uncontrollably for the last three days." By contrast Vermont native Teter, 19, is unflappable, grinning impishly beneath her trademark pulled-down ski caps. "They don't come off," she says. "I don't know why but I feel supercomfy in hats—I can hide under them if I feel like it, you know? I don't make them, but that's the next step—to make my own."
Yet that's about as much of a plan as either boarder will admit to. Bleiler says she will stay in Italy for a while, seeing the sights. As for Teter, who's dating Strive guitarist Eli Lieberman, "I think we're going back to the States and hang out and do a couple of things over there, and then I want to go to Lake Tahoe and soak up some sun rays and snowboard until the start of spring." Laverne and Shirley never had it so good.
GRETCHEN BLEILER SILVER MEDAL, SNOWBOARDING