Wednesday, February 17, 2010
White defends men's halfpipe title
WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Shaun White had the trick in the bag, along with an Olympic gold medal.
Might as well go for it, right?
Putting on a show when he hardly needed to, White capped his sensational night on the halfpipe with his signature move Wednesday -- the dangerous, spiraling Double McTwist 1260 during a victory lap that will go down as nothing short of epic.
"I wanted a victory lap that would be remembered," White said. "I achieved that."
The redheaded shredder scored a 48.4 on the final run, even though he was already assured of defending his Olympic title with a score of 46.8 on his first trip. Getting ready to close the night, he debated with his coaches for a minute, then made the decision.
Showtime! To the delight of cheering fans, he jerked his body around to milk the last half of the 3½ twists he crams into two head-over-heels flips.
An exclamation point on a spectacular day at the games for the Americans, who already had golds from Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn and speedskater Shani Davis, and wound up with six overall medals, including Scotty Lago's halfpipe bronze.
Wearing a blue bandanna with white stars, all of which goes perfect with the red hair, White easily outdistanced Finland's Peetu Piiroinen.
"It's impossible to beat Shaun unless he falls," Piiroinen said.
Lago's bronze gave the United States multiple medals on the halfpipe for each of the last three Olympics. Including the women, the U.S. halfpipe team has won 12 of the 21 medals awarded since the sport came to the games in 1998.
But has there ever been a bigger snowboarding star than White?
He's the multimillionaire who somehow flashes a businessman's smarts without losing touch with the culture that defines snowboarding -- the only sport that would think of competing in snow pants designed to look like torn-up jeans.
He keeps it fresh and he keeps people guessing.
White skipped the Double McTwist on the first run down the mountain, saying in an interview, "I know I have it in me, but the Olympics is pretty heavy. I was sweating it a little."
But if he was nervous on the first run, it didn't show. And it certainly wasn't anything to apologize for.
Soaring through the crisp, clear, Canadian sky, he flew 25 feet above the halfpipe at the top, linked a pair of spiraling, double-flipping moves in the middle and stayed on his feet the whole way down.
NBC spelled it all out in living color, transposing the shots of White's straight air and that of one of the medal contenders, Iouri Podladtchikov -- the "I-Pod." Suffice to say that had they actually been jumping at the same time, White would have landed on I-Pod's head.
In White's case, though, it doesn't always end when he wins.
He has become one of those rare athletes who makes the victory lap as dramatic as the show -- think Mary Lou Retton's second straight perfect-10 vault at the 1984 Olympics.
Knowing he had won, and celebrating at the top, he gathered himself and talked it over with one of his coaches. The conclusion: Snowboarding is supposed to be fun.
"He had to take a moment to collect himself, take several breaths to let out some screams and shouts and really celebrate," U.S. coach Mike Jankowski said.
The decision was impressive to everyone, including the godfather of the sport, Jake Burton, who is also one of White's key sponsors.
"With a gold medal already in his pocket, Shaun went out and beat his winning score," Burton said. "What a testament to how much fun snowboarding is. And what a true champion Shaun is."
White started the run by linking two double-flipping tricks -- "easier" versions of the signature move -- but then lost a little speed on the fourth jump, the one that sets up the finale. He went for the big trick anyway. It wasn't exactly perfect. He had to really twist his body to get the last half rotation, but he did it, landed on his feet, and the party that had already started got even bigger.
"That's what Shaun does," said Louie Vito, the "Dancing with the Stars" star who finished fifth. "He can go up there and lay down a run and take care of business. That's why he is who he is."
Instead of "Double McTwist 1260," White wants the trick to now be known as the "Tomahawk," after a huge steak he ate at the Winter X Games in Aspen.
"It was massive. Thirty ounces. Finished it," White said.
He began developing the trick about a year ago, but an injury halted his work on it. Meantime, he couldn't get himself to commit to it because it was dangerous -- he dinged his head gruesomely while practicing it at the X Games but walked away -- and he didn't really think he'd need it.
At that point, back-to-back double corks were enough to win almost any contest, and nobody did them better than The Flying Tomato.
But things changed drastically when one of White's main rivals, Kevin Pearce, suffered a severe head injury while practicing the double cork. At the next meet, a good friend of Pearce's, Danny Davis, dedicated his run to Pearce and became the first rider to try three double corks in the same run. Stuck them all. Beat White. And caused him to cancel his vacation plans so he could get back to work on his signature trick.
"It was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime run for him," White said. "And I'm happy he did it because it got me to where I am today."
Within a few weeks, White had perfected his new jump, debuted it at a contest in Utah, landed it and brought the halfpipe world back into its proper orbit. He was the best, he had the toughest trick and if he landed it, he would win every contest he entered.
Lago's bronze medal came on what might have been his best run of the season. He is one of a group of riders who call themselves the "Frends" -- because there is no 'I' in snowboarding -- a group that includes Davis and Pearce, who is recuperating in a hospital in Colorado.
Lago draped the American flag around his shoulders after his bronze medal was sealed.
The real celebration, though, was reserved for White, who by the looks of things, never gets tired of this.
He'll get the gold medal down in Vancouver on Thursday.
Yet another nice prize to throw in his always-expanding bag of tricks.