Saturday, February 15, 2014
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Maybe it was all too much. Or maybe just one of those bad nights. That debate will last a long time.
Shaun White stood at the top of the Olympic halfpipe Tuesday night, hunched over, hands resting above his knees. He high-fived his coach, clapped his hands, then jumped in for a ride that would decide if all the calculated choices he had made over a winter full of injuries, distractions and angst would pay off.
One jump, 15 feet above the pipe, was perfect. The second one looked good, too.
Then, the trick they call the “Yolo” — the one a rival invented but White had turned into his own.
His snowboard skittered across the halfpipe on the landing. White finished the run with a flourish and raised his index finger, trying to woo the judges who know, as well as anyone, what he’s done for his sport.
No sale. No medal, either. He finished fourth.
The world’s best-known, most-successful and best-marketed snowboarder lost to a man they call the “I-Pod,” and now, he may never hear the end of it.
“I would definitely say that tonight was just one of those nights,” White said after falling to Iouri Podladtchikov, the 25-year-old Russian-born inventor of the ‘Yolo.’ “The tricks I learned getting ready for the competition will carry on for a couple years in this sport. It’s a bummer. I had one of those nights.”
The Japanese pair of 15-year-old Ayumu Hirano and 18-year-old Taku Hiraoka won silver and bronze, and the Americans were shut out on the halfpipe for the first time since the sport was introduced to the Olympics in 1998.
Almost unthinkable, especially since White joined the mix and won the first of his two gold medals in 2006.
He wanted to win two this year — one in halfpipe and one in the newly introduced sport of slopestyle — but ended up with none.
“In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the best move, but he’s ambitious,” said Jake Burton, the snowboarding guru and one of White’s very first sponsors. “That’s him. You wouldn’t want to see him trade that in for anything.”
There’s more than one trendsetter in snowboarding, more than one person who likes to “progress the sport,” as they say on the halfpipe.
The effervescent Podladtchikov, who now lives in and competes for Switzerland, thought up the Yolo trick first and landed it first. White watched the replay of I-Pod doing it last March in an event in Europe and immediately saw what he needed to do.
Very quickly, he did it better than Podladtchikov and landed it twice in key events leading up to the Olympics. I-Pod tried it three times at the Winter X Games last month and fell all three times. “Practice,” he called it.
Those falls, and a hundred other reasons, are why White came into these games the heavy favorite to become only the seventh person to win three straight Olympic golds in an individual winter event.
“I saw videos of Shaun doing it really well,” Podladtchikov said. “I got bummed. I said, ‘Damn, that’s my trick and he’s doing it better than me. I guess I was doing it a little better tonight.”
The Yolo — You Only Live Once — includes a total of 1440 degrees of spin. It’s two head-over-heels flips and two 360-degree turns. Four years ago, it was unthinkable, but not anymore.
Well, maybe not so easy on this halfpipe.
It was sloppy, slushy and full of problems all week. Virtually nobody got a decent practice session in.
Thanks to a trip down the mountain from the crew that grooms the Alpine course, conditions improved. One of the supposed flaws of the pipe — too vertical on the sides — helped Podladtchikov keep the speed he needed to do the Yolo.
He landed it, and even though he only threw five tricks, when most riders were trying six, the judges liked what they saw.
As did Podladtchikov , who spiked his snowboard into the ground and threw his goggles into the crowd. He scored a 94.75.
“He’s incredible,” American Danny Davis, the 10th-place finisher. “That run on that halfpipe. Wow.”
White had come to Russia after a wild winter he spent trying to qualify in two events. He hurt his ankle and shoulder on the way, and changed his schedule on the fly and frequently. The biggest switch-up came when he pulled out of the Olympics’ inaugural slopestyle contest the day before qualifiers, saying he didn’t want to risk injury there for his historic quest on the halfpipe.
And so, the stakes were set.
Riders all get two chances, and their best score counts.
On White’s first run, his attempt at the Yolo ended with a fall that left him sliding down the halfpipe on his backside. Further down the pipe, he tried to finish with another of his double-cork tricks. His board slammed and bent on the lip of the pipe, followed by an awkward and painful fall onto his rear. He was in 11th place after one round.
I-Pod’s second run put huge pressure on White. His final runs at the last two Olympics have been nothing more than stress-free victory rides.
Away he went.
On the Yolo, he tucked his hands together to generate torque, then waved one like a cowboy riding a bucking bronco. The form looked good during his three seconds in the air. The landing ended his chances, and whatever small chance he had of winning a wrong-colored medal were wiped away when his knees buckled and nearly hit the snow on the final jump.
When the fourth-place score, a 90.25, came up, he broke into a knowing smile. He gave Podladtchikov a big hug and fatherly mussed his hair. He told him he was happy for him. But the champion had only himself to blame.
“I had a specific run I wanted to land and I didn’t put it down,” White said. “It’s one of the most frustrating things for me. If I land my run and I’m beaten, I’m OK with that. I didn’t get that chance tonight, and it happens.”