K RASNAYA POLYANA Russia It came down to the very last halfpipe run of the Olympics for Shaun White. Or, should that be the very last halfpipe run of the Shaun White Olympics?
With injured Lindsey Vonn out of the Winter Games, and the absence of an American figure skating ice queen, red-headed White was the made-for-TV superstar of the U.S. team.
The Sochi Olympics were White’s to lose. He lost twice. On a warmer-than-average Tuesday night in the Caucasus Mountains, he finished fourth in snowboarding’s signature event, the shredding circus act that is associated with White as closely as peanut butter is associated with jelly.
Two flubbed landings cost White the speed he needed to launch a big-air, big-points trick, and he was outdone by an inventive Swiss rider who nailed his YOLO (You Only Live Once) double-spinning double flip and two Japanese teenagers who reminded White of his prodigy days.
White also lost when he withdrew at the last minute from the slopestyle competition, saving himself for halfpipe but alienating fans and fellow riders. It was a cautious, calculating move to protect his image as a winner. It backfired.
White came to Russia with the goal of winning both events. But in his grab for gold he came up empty-handed.
When White finished his second run, he knew he had not hit the elements needed to surpass Iouri Podladtchikov’s score of 94.75, but he smiled and raised his index finger in a No. 1 sign anyway. No one was fooled. The White brand melted a little during these Olympics.
A strange, subdued vibe blanketed the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park when everyone realized two-time defending Olympic champ White would not be taking his customary spot on the medal podium.
“I’m about to faint,” said Podladtchikov, nicknamed I-Pod.
Said 15-year-old silver medalist Ayumu Hirano: “I never imagined I could beat Shaun White.”
That’s because White, 27, never lost at the Olympics and has dominated the X Games for a decade. He’s known as a clutch performer. The scenario Tuesday should have been perfect. After scoring the highest qualification mark in the afternoon, White fell twice on his first run in the final. He skidded on his backside after attempting the YOLO, then, two tricks later, slammed onto the lip of the pipe so hard that it appeared his board might snap in two. He found himself in an unfamiliar place — last.
Halfpipe is the best of two runs, so White, final rider of the night, was poised for a heroic show. At the top of the course, he knocked knuckles with his coach, pulled his red, white and blue bandanna over his mouth, clapped his mittened-hands and dove down the hill.
He vaulted 15 feet above the 22-foot wall on his first maneuver and looked smooth on the second, then ran into trouble again scuffing through the snow on his YOLO landing and scraping his knees on another. His total of 90.25 wasn’t even close.
“It’s a bummer,” White said. “I had a game plan, a specific run, and I didn’t get to put it down. I tried to win. I went for tricks that only Iouri and myself are doing. We came here on a mission. It just wasn’t my night, which is a tough thing to say because it was a big night.”
Podladtchikov, born in Russia, raised in Switzerland, said he watched videos of White doing his YOLO brainchild last spring and thought, “Damn, that’s my trick and he’s doing it better than me.”
I-Pod attempted it three times at last month’s Winter X Games and fell three times.
“That was my practice,” said Poladtchikov, whose run included a crippler, and backside and front-side double corks. “Everything came together here like pieces of a puzzle.”
White has made himself into a multimillion-dollar conglomerate and elevated the profile of what was once a rebellious form of recreation. He prides himself on being the ultimate competitor in a sport that worships camaraderie and discourages anything resembling killer instinct. He’s an outsider who disdains what he sees as a fake mentality that snowboarders are all bros who just want to get stoked and be friends and only reluctantly take part in what they call “contests.”
At the Sochi Games, White further distanced himself from the snowboarding fraternity, which resents his secretive training methods and focus on amplitude and revolutions rather than style.
But White deserves most of the credit for raising the level of difficulty and imagination in snowboarding. The sport has come a long way from Nagano 1998, when halfpipe made its Olympic debut and the initial winner was busted in a drug test for marijuana use. The event was dubbed “hashpipe” and everyone mocked snowboarders’ lingo.
They still talk in a manner that makes Kim Kardashian sound like a literature professor, but to watch them soar four stories in the air in dizzying degrees is to appreciate how the sport has evolved into one of incredible athleticism.
“I didn’t get to break out everything, which was really frustrating,” White said. “Tricks are still in my pocket. My dream scenario was to land the first run and then have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before like a triple cork.”
The pressure White put on himself proved his undoing. Always insulated by his corporate entourage, he has gotten a little too big for his baggy pants. Yet you can’t fault his ambition. In a sport where riders create the sickest tricks, White wants more. He’s seeking the perfect score.