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You wonder what the teenage Flying Tomato would have thought of the 31-year-old Shaun White that he has become. The red-haired mophead look has been replaced by the gelled-up salon cut. The fearless anti-establishment snowboarder is the establishment now.
And Wednesday morning in Pyeongchang, White had one last run to try to come from behind and win another Olympic gold medal in the halfpipe. Carrying the mental scars of Olympic failure from four years ago, he needed to drop in and produce the best run of his life—even better than those of today’s kids who have raised the level of daring in the sport he made famous.
GREG BAKER/Associated Press/Associated Press
That’s what made his gold medal win so incredible Tuesday night United States time. White did it. He won the gold, draped himself in the United States flag and walked off in tears.
“You know, honestly, I just felt it inside: I had it,” he told NBC when he was done. “I knew I had to put it down. You know, it’s so hard to describe. It’s the feeling like I knew I had it, but I had to still do it. I’m just working my way through the run, trick after trick, and it’s going well, better and better. And I’m riding away, and I can’t tell you how amazing it felt.”
Sometimes we overthink things in sports. Is Shaun White past his time? Is he really representing the mellow vibe of his sport? Is he on a redemption tour after his disappointing fourth-place finish in the 2014 Sochi Olympics?
Because his final run Tuesday wasn’t about any of that. Those are narratives that are sold to try to make sports interesting. You did not have to create anything to make this interesting. There was nothing in the storylines that was going to enhance this moment.
What White did on his final run was one of those moments in which an athlete combines his skill and hard work and incredible guts—and yes, probably, his past and his successes and his flaws—and rolls it up into one to be more than even he had ever been.
He was perfect. If there were flaws—his score was 97.75, not 100—it would take a better eye to see them. It was one of those moments that made you nervous just to watch…that made you shake, hold your breath…made your legs go weak.
White had laid down a great first run, scoring 94.25, and you had to guess everyone would be chasing him all night. Snowboarders get three tries to post their best score. Japan’s Ayumu Hirano wasted little time. The 19-year-old, who had recently become the first snowboarder to do back-to-back 1440s (four times around in the air), took over the lead with a second run that scored 95.25.
NBC Olympics @NBCOlympics
REDEMPTION FOR SHAUN WHITE!
HE WINS GOLD on his final run in men’s snowboard halfpipe! #BestOfUS #WinterOlympics https://t.co/E1XuTKbGvd https://t.co/b4Yn2jVVGN
That put the pressure back on White. He made his second attempt, and it didn’t go right, presumably because he was trying too hard to catch Hirano. And then, the third time around, everyone went before White. He was last to go and still had one more try. One man, one mountain.
He was all alone out there. He had to be. He had to have closed off everything. He wasn’t going to be able to do just one 1440 but instead had to do back-to-back 1440s to match Hirano. So he did the first one. And then he did the second one.
And this is the point when it was tough to breathe. Probably for him, too.
NBC Olympics @NBCOlympics
We’re not crying, you’re crying. #WinterOlympics #BestOfUS https://t.co/nCc69b6VvN
The greatest thing we learned about White is that he isn’t just a cultural icon. He works his butt off.
He didn’t have to come back after his failure in Sochi. He had already won two Olympic gold medals and theoretically had all the money, fame and love he would need.
So there was something counterintuitive about White and the laid-back aura around his sport. He took his failure as a reality check and took care of his body, which he needed to do at his age. He took his craft seriously. We saw him grow up through the years.
And that turns off some people in his own sport who think he doesn’t buy into the mentality that they bring to the mainstream. But really, too bad for them. White has found a way to mesh mellow with guts and grace.
“My family just says I like to show off,” he said. “They’re like: ‘You do this every time. You wait till the last run.’ And I’m like: ‘It’s what I do. I’m sorry. I need the pressure.'”
Shaun White made the Flying Tomato proud.
Greg Couch covers the Olympics for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @gregcouch.
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