White gold has added value
PYEONGCHANG — The pressure was real. So were the tears of joy, relief and redemption.
This is why Shaun White keeps going. This is why the American snowboarding superstar returns to the Olympics again and again, a journey that’s seen him evolve from teenage phenom to global icon.
Standing atop the halfpipe on a gray Wednesday morning at slushy Phoenix Snow Park with his hopes for a third gold down to one final shot. White never wavered.
“I honestly knew I had it,” he said. “I knew I had to put it down.”
The stakes left him little choice. Rising star and heir apparent Ayumu Hirano of Japan had snatched the lead out of White’s hand during the halfpipe final, throwing a spectacular epic second run to vault into the lead and put a portion of White’s Olympic legacy at risk. Not that it mattered. One deep breath, a halfdozen near flawless tricks — including back-to-back 1440s, a trick he never landed in competition before these finals — and one seemingly interminable wait later, White’s return to the top of his sport was complete.
When his score of 97.75 flashed, more than two points clear of Hirano and almost six clear of Australian bronze medalist Scotty James, it all seemed worth it.
White’s victory erased the long road back from disappointment in Sochi four years ago, along with memories of his painful recovery from a crash in New Zealand last fall that required emergency surgery.
“He wears the weight of the country on his shoulders for this,” said JJ Thomas, White’s longtime coach. “This is our Super Bowl — but bigger because it’s only once every four years.”
White’s stomped third run made him the first American male to win gold at three separate Winter Olympics. Speed skater Bonnie Blair earned gold in the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Games.
All four US golds at these Winter Games have been won by snowboarders.
“What can I say? I won the Olympics,” White said.
“Three gold medals. I was just hoping they’d give it to me. I was pretty sure I put it down but it took a little while. Just trying not to make eye contact with the judges.”
James, White and Hirano have eyed this showdown on the world stage for months and Hirano — who edged James in the X Games last month, an event White opted to skip after locking down a spot on the US Olympic team — shrugged when asked if he was concerned about the 98.50 White put up on Tuesday to earn the right to go last in the finals.
“I know what he does and he knows what I do,” Ayumu said. Namely, put on a show. White put together a dazzling first run, throwing a single 1440 early that scored a 94.25 to storm into the lead.
Hirano responded immediately, uncorking back-to-back 1440s. When the crowd exploded as his 95.25 posted, he simply shrugged his shoulders.
Hirano missed an opportunity to go even higher when he washed out on his final run. James put together an unspectacular last set, setting the stage for White.
He called the opportunity to go last his “good luck spot.” And with good reason. He went last during his gold medal runs in Turin in 2006 and in Vancouver in 2010.
Yet White had the top of the podium locked up during his last sprint down the pipe on both occasions.
“He’s an amazing athlete, an amazing rider and he’s achieved a lot of great feats in his career and today he did so again,” James said.
“Yeah, it’s really cool.”
Shaun White of the US celebrates winning the halfpipe finals at the Winter Olympics on Wednesday.