Saturday, September 30

Shaun White, one of America’s greatest Olympians, is finally an underdog

For all of the transcendent and pioneering parts to his career, the greatest competitive snowboarder in history has also not lacked for drama. So it was again on Wednesday in Zhangjiakou, China (Tuesday night on TV in the United States) that Shaun White put himself against a proverbial wall one final time. He’d been in such a spot before — he seems to thrive off the these self-inflicted dares. White needed a vintage, gravity-defying run to redeem his chances to make the top of the podium.

The 35-year-old White, who is seven years older than his nearest true competitor in this year’s Winter Olympics, had to finish in the top 12 of halfpipe qualifying in order to move on to Friday’s final (which will air Thursday night in the United States). Anything below 12th would mean White’s Olympics, his chances at one more medal, and his career, would be over. 

On his first qualifying run, White dipped into the pipe with plenty of speed and aggressively pulled off a pair of frontside 1080s before maneuvering into a casual frontside 540. Ironically, the move he effectively trademarked would be the one that put him on his back. White mistimed his go-to Double McTwist, a backside 1260 trick that has helped him win Olympic gold and X Games championships over the past decade-plus. 

White logged a dismal 24.25 after the fall. He then waited more than an hour before going again, needing a 58.40 to qualify. While surprising, this wasn’t stunning. After all, White had to squeeze in competition in Switzerland at the 11th hour in order to qualify for these Winter Games. White, who became famous under the “Flying Tomato” moniker; the cultural icon who spent all of his adolescence and most of his adult life flinging his body down pipes and mountains; who moonlighted in skateboarding competitions, felt the cost of his craft compile. This week is it. 

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But would it happen a few days ahead of schedule? White is no longer a favorite to win gold — halfpipe is a young person’s game, and he’s let it be known these Olympics will be his final competition — but he’s still among the best. 

Of course he came through once more; Wednesday would not be his finale. On his second qualifying run, White again nailed a pair of frontside 1080s and a 540 before regaining his form and pulling off the Double McTwist. He finished his second run with a frontside 1260 for good measure to earn an 86.25, putting him in fourth place in qualifying. White slid right into view of television cameras and couldn’t contain his joy — and relief. There was a huge exhale. A big smile. A theatric wiping of his brow.

He’d made it to the final. 

Had he been carrying doubts down that huge pipe? It seemed like it. After all, it could have been the last run of his Olympic career. But no. Not for the greatest. He’s got one more day on the sport’s biggest stage. 

“A lot of thoughts going through my head, a lot of pressure,” White said on the NBC broadcast after his second run.

He wouldn’t give away what he had in mind for Friday’s final, but White will almost certainly be required to be near-perfect in order to do something he’s seldom had to do: win as an underdog. 

“I’m going to throw everything I got at it, see what happens,” White said. 

White is competing against people whom he, at least in part, inspired to snowboard. Japan’s Ayumu Hirano is the favorite to win gold in halfpipe, as he’s a dazzler. To watch him soar is to see the artful, athletic evolution of snowboard halfpipe. Hirano is smooth, confident, ready for his biggest moment after finishing with a silver in 2018 in Pyeongchang. That was White’s comeback, when he won gold after a shocking fourth-place finish in Sochi four years prior. 

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On Friday, White will try and out-do a younger, stronger, leaner, more aggressive Hirano. Scottie James of Australia — who, like Hirano, seemed to treat Wednesday’s qualifier as the main event — is another awe-inspiring athlete. Switch-backside tricks, and flying off the pipe to pull off 1260s like they’re nothing. These snowboarders unspool themselves 40 feet above sheets of man-made ice walls.

White can’t win on legacy alone. He’ll have to earn it. Perhaps fittingly, Friday’s finale will amount to one of the toughest competitions of his career. 

Hirano has pulled off the ultra-rare triple cork, a relatively new trick that has the snowboard world abuzz. White wouldn’t commit to doing that when asked about it on Wednesday. It might be necessary for him to try if he plans on winning gold, though. 

“If there’s a time to do it, that’ll be it,” White said. 

If he tries it, and pulls it off, it could be one of the biggest and best moments of these Beijing Olympics. At the very least, an American audience — and the snowboarding community — gets one final chance to see the greatest in its sport compete. What’s more is that White is still competing at a high level. He’s not who he was at 17 or 22 — or even 30 —  but he’s still Shaun White. He’s the reason halfpipe is an Olympic sport. 

There have been many disappointments for American Olympians in China, and the United States has, so far, not yet collectively performed as well as it’s accustomed to at a Winter Olympics. There aren’t many stars, and this year’s Games do undeniably lack the buzz and pull of most Olympics. The reasons for that are plenty, many of them obvious. An American audience that still cares to watch is looking for reason to cheer. 

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On Friday in China, White will try to make history by winning a fourth Olympic medal in snowboarding. No matter how it goes, it will be one of the biggest moments these controversial Games can offer. 

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