US snowboarder Shaun White is arguably the greatest freestyle snowboarder of all-time. Pushing the boundaries of his event, the halfpipe, into new territory, his outlandish moves have become the “gold-standard”. White won his first two Olympic halfpipe golds in Turin and Vancouver, yet failed to make it a hat-trick at Sochi 2014, where an uncharacteristically sub-par performance in the final cost him a medal. Now back to his brilliant best, he has his sights set on redemption in PyeongChang.
The undisputed superstar of his sport, White arrived at Sochi 2014 as the reigning Olympic halfpipe champion and hot favourite. However, on 11 February 2014 in the final at Rosa Khutor, he suddenly found himself under pressure.
Having topped Group 2 of the qualifying round with the best score of all 18 competitors (95.75), he cruised straight into the final, while the other big-hitter, Switzerland’s Iouri Podlatchikov, had to navigate his way through a semi-final. Yet “IPod’s” dominant performances had the crowds purring, and left White admitting to his old friend and rival: “I love you buddy, but you’re making me nervous!” He was right to feel that way.
Scars of Sochi
The American had wowed the world at Vancouver 2010 with a move he calls the “double McTwist 1260”, a manoeuvre no other boarder had managed; it earned him the highest score ever seen in an Olympic halfpipe. But in his first run in the final at Rosa Khutor, he made a hash of his signature stunt, wiping out not once but twice.
Pressure mounted on him to produce an exceptional second run, especially as Podlatchikov had produced a truly magical moment of his own - conjuring an incredible manoeuvre that he promptly dubbed the “YOLO flip”. White, however, lost his balance twice more and his score of 90.25 failed to earn him a place on the podium. Podlatchikov was duly crowned champion, with Japanese pair Ayumu Hirano and Taku Hiraoka claiming the other medals.
White remains the most successful halfpipe boarder of all time with a record 13 X-Games medals to accompany his two Olympic golds, yet his failure at Sochi still looms large in his thoughts: "I’ve never gotten over finishing fourth in Sochi. Not performing the way I wanted made me refocus and recalibrate,” he reflected in February 2017.
“It’s like when you fall off your bike, you still have the little scar from it – it’s part of you and you learn from it and I’ve done that! I’ve been working on some new tricks and I feel stronger and more focused than ever.”
Primed for PyeongChang
White had a sneak preview of the Bokwang Phoenix Park, which will host the PyeongChang 2018 halfpipe competition, when he competed in a World Cup event there in February 2017. His verdict:
“The flat bottom is smooth, the walls are big, it feels comfortable and you can go as fast as you want. It’s probably one of the best pipes of the season… one of the best I’ve ridden in a long time… I’m very happy!”
A natural-born competitor, the American admits his passion for snowboarding can occasionally dip. “There have been times when it’s been hard to motivate – it can be very difficult. That’s why I always do skateboarding or music – things that take my attention and challenge me. Then when I come back to snowboarding it’s a nice relief. It’s like living in two worlds…”
With PyeongChang 2018 fast approaching, he is happy to be snowboarding again: “I live in California, at the beach, where the last thing I think about is snowboarding; then I come back and it’s like ‘It’s not so bad’. That’s been my secret. But I’m excited to be here. I feel like my old self – I feel like me again!”
Back to winning ways
In order to qualify for PyeongChang, White must first navigate his way through the qualification system devised by the American snowboard team. Past Olympic credentials count for nothing, with all Team USA hopefuls being ranked on their performances in a series of five qualifying events. White has already taken a big step towards his fourth Winter Olympics by winning the first of these at Mammoth Mountain in February 2017. He can’t afford to rest on his laurels just yet though. The other four qualifying events all take place between December 2017 and January 2018, at Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and Snowmass, before a return to Mammoth Mountain.
An Olympic Winter Games without White is hard to imagine, and it would be a surprise if he did not make the cut for PyeongChang. Now 31 – a veteran by the standards of his sport – the American is still capable of producing the kind of sparkling routines, punctuated with moments of utter genius, that could catapult him to a third Olympic gold and finally allow him to lay his Sochi demons to rest.