| USA TODAY Sports
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – The final trick safely landed, the gold medal almost assuredly around his neck, Shaun White came off the halfpipe at Phoenix Snow Park and raised his arms, screaming with the kind of emotion you’ve rarely seen during his lifetime as a superstar athlete and cultural icon.
What White did here Wednesday went further than those familiar labels; beyond his talent, his presence and his resume, none of which were ever in question. What he did, nailing his awe-inspiring final run to win this event for the third time in four Olympics, didn’t merely re-affirm his standing as the greatest snowboarder who’s ever lived. Instead, it put him in the conversation as the author of America’s most clutch Winter Games performance of all-time.
“I think personally,” his coach, JJ Thomas said, “it’s the best halfpipe run I’ve ever seen in the history of the sport.”
But even that’s not big enough for what we witnessed White pull off in the finals. After two runs, his margin for error was gone. And with Japan’s Ayumu Hirano having already posted a score of 95.25 out of 100 on his second run after landing back-to-back 1440s – four full rotations in the air – the bar White had to reach was so high.
Not only did the moment demand near perfect execution, but in having to match those consecutive 1440s, White would have to pull off something he’d never done before – not in competition, not even in practice.
“I didn’t want to wait around and watch the competition, so we kept spinning laps around the mountain, taking trips on the chair lift, anything to distract from this imminent pressure cooker situation,” White said.
It is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this sport, which has essentially grown up around, and thanks to, the now 31-year old White. As young as it is, there are still barriers to break and thresholds that progressively get crossed. As successful as White has been, nobody had done consecutive 1440s until Hirano did it at the Winter X Games last month. And now here was White, as he stood at the top of the halfpipe, knowing that for all he’s accomplished he would still have to pull off something greater than he’s ever accomplished before.
“Frankly, it’s dangerous,” said Thomas, who won the bronze medal at the second-ever Olympic halfpipe competition in 2002. “The moves are so dangerous now, it’s not like you can practice them every day like you used to. These moves are different. The consequences are so high. We had to wait until it was game time.”
When White tried the consecutive 1440s on his second run, he landed them, but not as cleanly as Hirano before stumbling as he tried to complete his double McTwist 1260. He knew, in that moment, that he had it in him to do it again – and to finish the run next time. But this wasn’t any other competition. This was the Olympics, and even as a two-time champion, every bit of that pressure and history seemed to be staring back at him.
“It’s different for Shaun,” Thomas said. “His Olympic experience, I’ve learned, is so much different from what mine was just because of who he is and what he’s accomplished. He’s a boss to make this happen, but he is stressed. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders up there.”
As the crowd roared from the bottom of the hill, White began to pump his fists. It was, in many ways, the same nervous sensation he felt four years ago in Sochi when he needed one great run to beat Iouri Podladtchikov but, for whatever reason, couldn’t make it happen and finished fourth.
But this time, as he readied himself to drop in, he let it all go and nailed those 1440s with two 1260s on top of it. Moments later, he found himself at the bottom celebrating a score of 97.75 that, when it was posted, caused him to flip his snowboard, drop to his knees and immediately have to wipe away tears.
“I looked down at the pipe and kind of said to myself, you know you’ve got this,” he said. “It’s what you’ve done your whole life and career, and savor this moment because you might just win the Olympics.
“(In Sochi), I was defeated in my mind before I dropped in, and I’m so thankful I got to stand there again and know who I am and know what I can do and do that run to win it. It’s rare to get these opportunities to redeem yourself in life and in your career, and I took advantage of that.”
It’s difficult to put White’s final run in the context of greatest American Olympic moments without succumbing a little bit to recency bias, and perhaps it’s unfair to compare him with any other athlete or sport. But in that moment, given what he needed to do – and how he actually pulled it off – you simply won’t find very many performers who have risen to the occasion as inspirationally.
“He’s a psycho,” said American Ben Ferguson, who finished fourth. “He is really, really, really good, and he can turn it on when he has to. And he lands it when it means something.”
Or when it means everything.
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