Halfpipers ready to show risk is worth reward
WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Snowboarding was at a crossroads, and Shaun White knew it.
The decision by competition officials two years ago to raise the walls on the halfpipe from 18 to 22 feet gave riders a blank canvas.
The way the world’s most famous snowboarder looked at it, the sport could go one or two ways.
One option – admittedly the safer one – was to pack more dizzying spins into a run.
Where some saw danger, White and his high-flying buddies saw possibility.
Higher walls meant bigger jumps and more air time. Why spin when you could flip and spin?
“With the other direction you’re sacrificing a certain style other snowboarders have in being creative,” said the defending Olympic gold medalist, who will go for a second gold Wednesday night on Cypress Mountain. “It’s cool to see that that’s the direction that we’re going, the creative route and kind of expressing your own strengths of snowboarding.”
Even if that creativity carries considerable risk.
Star Kevin Pearce – one of the sport’s biggest innovators – was seriously injured in December when he crashed while practicing a double-cork. The mold-breaking move requires riders to go board over head twice in one jump.
Pearce remains in a Colorado hospital and it’s unclear when – or if – he’ll be able to ride again.
While the snowboarding community has rallied in support of Pearce, with many riders sporting stickers on their regular boards that read “I ride 4 Kevin,” his injury has done little to slow down the envelope pushing.
Pearce’s double-cork inspired American Danny Davis to pursue the trick, and he did it three times in the same run to beat White in a competition last month.
That caused White to cancel a vacation and head straight to the halfpipe, where he spent several painful days perfecting the trick he hopes will bring him a second gold: the Double McTwist 1260.
The gravity-defying move requires White to pack 3 1/2 spins inside of two head-over-heels flips. He posted scores of 49 and 49.5 – within a point of perfection – when he unveiled it in Utah in January.
White calls the trick his best friend and his worst enemy. A week after scorching the pipe in Park City, he narrowly avoided disaster when he smacked his face on the lip of the pipe while trying to land the Double at the end of a practice run at the X Games.
The accident left White with a raspberry on his cheek, but it also left him unbowed. He shook it off and headed straight back to the top of the mountain. And won the contest.
“You get an injury and somebody that goes down and crashes and it just really shocks people,” White said. “I think I can speak for everyone in saying that’s just a part of what we do. We fall, get back up and we try it again. It’s the best part of our sport. You can take a crash and come back and succeed over it and it’s just the best feeling you can have.”
Getting back up has been Torah Bright’s deal for the past several months. Oft-injured – she banged her head during training twice in three days at the X Games – the Australian is the lone female rider who tries a double cork trick.
If she can pull it off in the women’s competition Thursday, she’ll have the best chance to prevent more American domination. Kelly Clark, Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler have two Olympic golds and a silver between them and are expected to be on the medal stand again.
“My strategy has been to control what I do, and not worry about the rest,” said Clark, who flies higher than any of the women.
White, meanwhile, would be heavily favored even if he left the Double McTwist back in the States, but feels on obligation to keep propelling the sport forward.
“I’m pretty excited about the new tricks,” he said. “I think it’s the way the sport was headed and I’m just happy to be in a bit of a driving seat for it.”
If White lands his trick cleanly in one of the two runs all riders are given for finals, he’s almost assured of grabbing his second gold medal. If he doesn’t, there are a handful of challengers who can step in.
American and “Dancing with the Stars” alum Louie Vito is one of the few riders who can do back-to-back double corks, while Switzerland’s Iouri Podladtchikov, dubbed “IPod,” finished second to White at the X Games.
“There’s always a lot of riders we haven’t even really seen ride as much as we normally do,” Vito said. “I’m sure there’s going to be someone from another country who is going to come up and put down the hammer.”
For the last four years, that rider has been White.
With his floppy red hair, his unique style and ability to summon the sickest jumps whenever necessary, the 23-year-old nicknamed “The Flying Tomato” has become the sport’s first true crossover star. White has his own clothing line and video game and is seemingly at ease in the spotlight.
He’s comfortable carrying the burden of bringing the sport to the masses and understands snowboarding is under the “magnifying glass” because of the stage the Olympics provides.
The safety questions that popped up after Pearce’s injury will only intensify if something goes wrong on Cypress Mountain. White admits he was fortunate at the X Games to escape relatively unharmed.
Yet, to him, the risks are worth the reward. He and the rest of the best riders in the world didn’t come to the Olympics to hold back.
“I would just say that the sport, I don’t think, has gotten more dangerous, it was dangerous to begin with,” he said. “You drive around in a car and that’s pretty dangerous. … It’s just part of what we do.”
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