Boxing had its pivotal rumble in the jungle. Snowboarding now has its climactic contest. Call it pandemonium in the pipe.
With the world’s best boarders spinning and flipping down the Olympic halfpipe Wednesday, it was Shaun White who claimed victory by linking two of the hardest tricks possible — a pair of gargantuan double-cork 1440s. Those tricks sent him past Japan’s Ayumu Hirano and Australia’s Scotty James in a duel for the ages.
That frontside 1440 was the same trick that sent White to the hospital in October after a brutal slam in a New Zealand halfpipe mangled his face, requiring 62 stitches to repair. He almost quit snowboarding after that crash. His journey to South Korea — with a renewed focus on his sport with a new coach and support team — was almost derailed with those stitches.
“I completely separated my face and I’m thinking, ‘What does this mean?’ We were on such a great path and it was a true question of like, ‘Do I really want this?’ ” he said Wednesday after shedding celebratory tears at the bottom of the Olympic halfpipe, just as he did for his first gold medal a dozen years ago at the Turin Olympics in 2006. “Stepping out on snow again means that I’m willing to let that happen to myself again and that’s a big decision. But I set out to do this goal and I stuck to it and it helped me overcome that fear and then I did the same trick that put me in the hospital to win the Olympics. What an emotional trip.”
White’s gold was the 100th gold medal for the U.S. in the history of the Winter Olympics and the fourth gold medal for the U.S. at the PyeongChang Games, all earned by snowboarders.
Four years ago, White failed to podium at the Sochi Olympics, the first time an American didn’t medal since halfpipe snowboarding debuted at the 1998 Nagano Games. He was in a bad space in Sochi, he said. He wasn’t fired up to snowboard. He was playing guitar in a rock band, running a blossoming empire, hanging with friends, learning Spanish. He was trying to compete in both halfpipe and slopestyle in Russia.
“I had this perfect storm of biting off more than I could chew during the time when I was the most unmotivated,” he said.
He said he was missing the simple things in life and “that was really tormenting me in the run-up to Sochi.” After the Sochi loss and almost 20 years as a professional rider, he said he struggled with how he could make himself love snowboarding again.
“Which isn’t something easy to do,” he said. “How do you flip that switch inside and really, truly want it?”
But he flipped that switch. He got serious about being an athlete; working out and training harder. He hired a coach, J.J. Thomas, the bronze medal winner from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic halfpipe contest. He enlisted the help of Toby Miller, a hotshot snowboarder who turned 18 on Wednesday and has been documenting White’s push into South Korea. White said the ever-smiling Miller was “super excited about about all the things I was completely not excited about any more.”
With all that new energy, he was training in New Zealand when he slammed, suffering a facial injury. With the help of Thomas and Miller, he chose to continue on his quest for Olympic glory.
White spent the past four years focusing on one minute. And what a minute: At the top of the Olympic halfpipe with the world watching, he was the final athlete, trailing the technical virtuoso Hirano after two runs. With ice in his veins, the 31-year-old stomped the run of his life and one of the best runs in the history of pipe riding — linking a pair of 14s for the first-time in his career — to grab his third Olympic gold medal in four Olympic contests.
Standing at the top after Ayumu bumped him to second, White said he felt an overwhelming feeling of confidence. He knew he could do that second 1440.
“I found myself in this position that I love and I’m so proud that this happens to me in this situation, but I do better when the pressure is on,” White said. “One run to go. The world is watching. My whole family is here and everyone is cheering for me and I just put it down.”
Oregon’s Ben Ferguson, snowboarding’s official protector of style, a role he inherited from Vermont Olympian Danny Davis, finished in fourth with a massive air-to-fakie into a whirlwind of stylized spinning highlighted by two impressive switch double corks.
“It is insane, the level to do those tricks. Those dudes are psychos. I have not even fathomed trying to do that,” Ferguson said. “If that’s the way it’s going, that’s kind of what you have to do to stay in there. But I will always try to keep a bit of pure freestyle snowboarding in there.”
Ferguson had praise for White, heralding not only his physical prowess in the pipe, but his steely nerves.
“He can turn it on when he needs to and when it means something,” Ferguson said. “I think that dude thrives on the pressure. History shows that that dude does good when it’s turned up.”
Thomas said Wednesday’s Olympic showdown “was the best pipe run I’ve ever seen in the history of the sport.”
White had never practiced those back-to-back 1440s. It’s so high consequence, it’s not something that a rider would repeat over and over. The first time he ever tried it was on his second lap in the Olympics.
“It says without a doubt he is the best competitive snowboarder on earth hands down and he surpasses that and even goes into the category of all-time greats in sports,” said Thomas, who heard the crowd roaring at the top of the pipe before the final run of the contest and saw White slamming his fist into his gloved palm.
“I felt it too. He needs this energy,” Thomas said. “He’s a world performer, and this is his stage.”
And White is not done. When he gets back to California, he’s going to get back on his skateboard. Maybe enter a few contests. See if he has the skills to skate in the sport’s debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“Just to get to the Summer Olympics would be amazing,” he said. “I’d love to just give it my all and see what happens.”
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