The pressure was real. So were the tears — of joy, relief, redemption. This is why Shaun White keeps going.
This is why the 31-year-old snowboarding superstar keeps coming back to the Olympics, a journey on which he has evolved from teenage phenom to global brand to living legend. One with a perpetual target on his back and impossible expectations to meet. 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 had snatched the lead from White during the men’s halfpipe final, throwing a spectacular 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 half-dozen nearly 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. The long road back from disappointment in Sochi four years ago. The painful recovery from a crash in New Zealand last fall that required emergency surgery. The notion the man who for so long served as a pioneer had been surpassed by the next generation. Not quite yet.
“He wears the weight of the country and the world on his shoulders for this,” said J.J. Thomas, White’s longtime coach. “This is our Super Bowl. But bigger because it’s only once every four years and he stresses out.”
Funny, it didn’t show as he became the first American male to win gold at three separate Winter Olympics. Speedskater Bonnie Blair won gold in the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Games. The gold was also the 100th overall gold for the United States in the Winter Games.
“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 traded electric runs during qualifying Tuesday, “sending it” in snowboarding terms and sending a bit of a message in the process. The three have eyed this showdown on the world stage for months, and Hirano shrugged when asked if he was concerned about the 98.50 White put up Tuesday to earn the right to go last in the finals.
“I know what he does and he knows what I do,” Hirano said. Namely, put on a show.
White put together a dazzling first run, throwing a 1440 early on and building from there. He tossed his helmet toward the crowd when he finished and celebrated in the waiting area while the judges deliberated. His score of 94.25 was tops after the first of the three finals runs, but Hirano recovered after sitting down during his first trip to put White on notice during the second.
The 19-year-old uncorked back-to-back 1440s of his own, and when the crowd exploded as his 95.25 flashed, he shrugged, unfazed by the stakes. 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 Vancouver in 2010. Yet White had the top of the podium locked up during his last sprint down the pipe on both occasions. This moment required something more. And he delivered.