THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Home is where his heart is

Lago appreciates friends’ support

By Matt Higgins
New York Times / February 25, 2010

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SEABROOK, N.H. - One country and three time zones from Vancouver - where he had planned to be this week - Scotty Lago sat perched on a bar stool Monday night in this small town, wearing a Team USA jacket and cap, his bronze medal hanging from his neck.

Large TVs glowed overhead with men’s ski jumping and an interview with the Olympics swimming star Michael Phelps, who, like Lago, was subject to public censure when photos of him performing party antics appeared online. But here, among family and friends, Lago is unlikely to face similar disapproval.

A week ago, Lago, 22, was on the cusp of the run of his life, a soaring, spinning and flipping routine during the men’s snowboarding halfpipe competition at Cypress Mountain. And he was about to learn a lesson in the flip side of fame, too.

In a span of 48 hours, he went from a lesser-known member of the US team to an Olympic medalist, and then to notoriety when sexually suggestive photographs of him with a young woman and his medal appeared on the celebrity website TMZ.com.

One shows the woman bending to kiss the medal below Lago’s waist, while he pulls his shirt up. The other shows the woman biting the medal while Lago and his teammate Greg Bretz look on.

Lago seemed genuinely remorseful this week.

“I’m sorry for the pictures,’’ he said. “I’m sorry to the American public that I offended. I was out celebrating. It happened so quick.’’

Lago learned of the photos Friday morning, the day after they were taken at a party. He apologized to the US Ski and Snowboard Association for what he termed “a lapse in judgment.’’ USSA officials and Lago’s coaches reviewed the matter and said, “We think it’s in Scotty’s best interest to go home,’’ said Lago’s agent, Circe Wallace. They bought him a ticket home to New England and drove him to the airport.

“Our athletic directors discussed the situation with Scotty when we became aware of it,’’ said Tom Kelly, a USSA spokesman. “And he decided to leave.’’

About Lago’s hijinks in the photos, Kelly said, “It’s not acceptable.’’

The US Olympic Committee has stepped up efforts to head off misbehavior by Olympians after some high-profile incidents. The freestyle skier Jeret Peterson was expelled from the 2006 Turin Games for fighting. And last year, Phelps, months after winning a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, appeared in published photographs with a marijuana pipe. The USOC expressed disappointment in Phelps and USA Swimming suspended him for three months.

Patrick Sandusky, a USOC spokesman, said there would be no sanctions against Lago. “He had already decided to leave before we had our first conversation internally,’’ he said.

Lago said he left the Games under pressure from USSA because he “didn’t want repercussions,’’ noting that he would like to compete for the US team again.

“I didn’t want to leave,’’ Lago said. “They felt it was in the best interest to get out of the limelight a little.’’

By Saturday, Lago had returned home to New Hampshire, a place without paparazzi or, it appears, ambivalence about the circumstances of his departure from the games.

Lago ate dinner Monday with friends and roommates whose roles resemble those of the characters in the HBO series “Entourage,’’ except with New England accents.

Few here, it seems, would pass judgment on Lago, and, in fact, a parade is being planned in his honor. A homemade red, white, and blue banner reading “Go Scotty Go’’ hung outside the Seabrook Community Center. Inside, elementary school students hung signs they made in art class congratulating Lago.

“All the kids are looking up to him,’’ said Frances Eaton, the center’s office manager. “Everybody is talking about Scotty Lago. I would say he’s about the biggest thing right now.’’

When the photos surfaced last week, though, Lago was feeling low.

“When I spoke to him it just happened and he was shook up,’’ said Keir Dillon, a member of the professional snowboarding collective called Frends, spelled without an “i’’ to indicate unity. “It was a little harsh to crush someone’s dreams over this.’’

In Seabrook, Lago’s spirits have been buoyed. In the yard of the spacious house where he grew up, on a ridge overlooking his family’s 80-acre spread, he called “pull,’’ aimed his shotgun and blasted a clay pigeon. Later, Lago shot pool with friends in the nearby house with an indoor swimming pool he bought last fall.

Most professional snowboarders from the East Coast eventually make their way West for better snow conditions, but Lago prefers to be closer to family, friends and, the hunting grounds where he stalks deer each autumn.

He dropped out of school in ninth grade to chase a career in snowboarding and said he cherished his time at home.

For years, Lago was known as a snowboarder with enviable style who choked in competition. On the US halfpipe team, he was overshadowed by Shaun White, who won a second consecutive gold medal last week, and Louie Vito, who failed to medal.

On Monday, packages of Olympic uniforms Lago never got a chance to wear in Vancouver were piled on his bed along with a book, “The Inner Game of Tennis,’’ given to him by his older brother, that provided mental techniques Lago applied to snowboarding this season.

“Contests, I used to look at as a chance to fail,’’ he said. “I turned my mind-set around.’’

In the halfpipe final at Vancouver, Lago stood at the top of the pipe before his medal-winning run, looking at all the flags, concentrating on his breathing. He dropped in and did five tricks, one a cab double cork 1080.

“I had one of the better runs I’ve had in my life,’’ he said.

Amid the success, Lago said, he was keeping his Olympic exile in perspective.

“I had just achieved the greatest thing I had achieved in my life,’’ he said. “I’m not letting this get me down at all.’’