KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — With history to make and a brand to build, Shaun White stood atop the halfpipe at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. The most successful and most famous snowboarder of all time had one final run remaining.
One run to dazzle the crowd and judges. One run to remind his younger, high-flying competitors who was the face of Olympic halfpipe. One run to become the first American man to win a gold medal in the same individual event in three consecutive Winter Olympics. One run to add to his legacy and legend.
The crowd grew quiet with anticipation as White dropped into the vast halfpipe Tuesday night. The hushed audience expected big air and big tricks under the lights.
White did his best to deliver, flipping and twisting far above the coping. The athlete once popularly known as the “Flying Tomato” looked spectacular in the air, but his landings, as they say in the snowboarding world, appeared sketchy. On one trick midway through his run, he seemed to sit down on the edge of the halfpipe. Then, on his final trick, he put his hand down.
As White, 27, awaited his score, he seemed to sense his final run was not enough to surpass the younger talent in the field. It was a question of how far he would fall in the standings. The answer was fourth place with 90.25 points. The crowd gasped at the final result, witnessing the end of a snowboarding era instead of more White history. Still, White said afterward, “I don’t think tonight makes or breaks my career” and that “I’d like to be remembered as more than just a snowboarder.”
The Sochi Olympics, however will be remembered for what White didn’t do in the halfpipe. It certainly wasn’t what he envisioned, especially when he made a strategic decision to drop out of the slopestyle competition and focus on halfpipe. White’s withdrawal was criticized by some of his fellow competitors. While White said he didn’t want to risk injury on a troublesome slopestyle course, two Canadian snowboarders claimed he pulled out because he didn’t want to lose.
But halfpipe has always been the event where White’s creativity, athleticism and fearlessness translate best. Except Tuesday, when White couldn’t execute the way he wanted.
“I had a game plan, a specific run, and I didn’t get to put it down,” said White. “If I land my run and I’m beat, I’m OK with that. I didn’t get to break out everything. 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. I tried to win. I went for big tricks that only Iouri [Podladtchikov] and myself are doing. I could have played it safe but I wanted to win. We came here on a mission. It wasn’t my night, which is a tough thing to say because it’s a big night.”
The gold medal went to Switzerland’s Iouri Podladtchikov (94.74 points), the silver to 15-year-old Japanese phenom Ayumu Hirano (93.50 points), and the bronze to his countryman Taku Hiraoka (92.25 points). It was the first time the US failed to place a snowboarder on the podium in a men’s or women’s Olympic halfpipe event. Snowboard halfpipe was introduced at the 1998 Nagano Games.
“We let America down,” said 10th-place finisher Danny Davis with a wry smile. “Sorry America.”
Then, turning slightly more serious, Davis added: “I think it’s a sign that there’s other good snowboarders out there. There’s a lot of good riders in halfpipe. Iouri shined tonight. Some of us others didn’t. It’s the way it goes sometimes. I think it’s great [for the sport that White finished fourth]. More of the American public and the world now know that there are other snowboarders besides Shaun White.
“Don’t get me wrong. Shaun is one of the most talented, best riders there is, but there are guys who are just as good, if not better. Today, Iouri was the best rider.”
Pulling off the upset, the Moscow-born Podladtchikov, 25, produced an inspired, clean second run packed with big tricks. The biggest trick was his signature “YOLO” flip, a double cork 1440. Only Podladtchikov and White have thrown the YOLO flip in competition.
Podladtchikov was so pleased with his second run he engaged in a raucous celebration, throwing down his snowboard, falling to the snow, jumping into the arms of the course slippers who help groom the halfpipe.
“Everything came together exactly the way I planned it,” said Podladtchikov. “The run felt like it was all meant to be. I’m throwing down my hardest tricks with ease. I’ve never been so confident about myself.”
After Podladtchikov won, White came over and congratulated the Swiss snowboarder. White also praised the way Podladtchikov approaches snowboard halfpipe.
“He deserves a big win like this,” said White. “He’s been pushing it hard. It’s nice to see someone else that’s out there that’s really stepping it up and doing big tricks, pushing the envelope of what’s possible in halfpipe.”
Podladtchikov, his “YOLO flip” and his post-run celebration showcased all snowboard halfpipe can be. Meanwhile, many other competitors struggled with the slushy halfpipe conditions, tripping on the flat bottom or struggling with landings. Many finalists found themselves crashing around three-quarters of the way down, unable to complete a full run. There was more frustration than celebration as snowboarders awaited their scores.
When asked about the condition of the course, White mentioned how he’d skipped slopestyle because of course issues only to face more issues in halfpipe. But he didn’t make the course conditions an excuse.
“I had a tough time, but everyone was riding in the same conditions,” said White. “Everyone was in the same boat. We’re all on an even playing field. Those guys [who medaled] had a great night and I give them props.”
As for the future, White plans to keep snowboarding. But he will briefly step away from the sport this year.
“I know where I have to improve and where I need to go from here and that’s on tour with my band,” said White. “I need a break from snowboarding. I’ll play some music and come back to snowboarding.”