Red, White and gold
By BRETT MARTEL
The Associated Press
BARDONECCHIA, Italy – The pressure was mounting for Shaun White.
He had fallen in his first Olympic qualifying run, and he had nearly two hours to dwell on it before he would get another chance to advance to the halfpipe finals.
So his coach took him up the chairlift for an impromptu therapy session.
“We just went snowboarding. We just went up, we made turns, we slashed … we did little flippy things on the snow,” coach Bud Keene said. “And instead of standing up at the top letting pressure build staring into the pipe, which is what he might have been inclined to do, I grabbed him and pulled him onto a chairlift and we went out and had some fun.”
The unorthodox coaching move marked the beginning of the end for riders who hoped to score an upset over the dominant snowboarding star. The Flying Tomato – as he is known for his long, red hair – finished his last-chance qualifier first among those fighting for the remaining six spots in Sunday’s 12-man final.
He fell to his knees and clutched his pounding heart in relief. Shortly after, he confidently trounced the remaining competition, clinching the medal he was overwhelmingly favored to win with a whopping 46.8 score on his first of two finals runs. Riding to AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” he nailed the landings on two straight soaring 1080-degree spins, followed by a pair of 900s.
“He certainly wouldn’t have been the first guy at the Olympics to choke if that had happened, but he’s not a choker. He’s a winner,” Keene said.
White hugged both of his parents and briefly sobbed as he buried his face in his father’s chest, then wore an American flag around his shoulders during a flower ceremony.
So much for the Olympics’ recent struggles to gain credibility among the world’s best snowboarders.
“This whole trip, I’ve been saying, ‘It’s just another competition,”‘ White said. “But deep down, I really cared the most. … I’m so overwhelmed right now, I can barely keep my sentences going.”
American Danny Kass was second with a score of 44, adding to the silver he won in Salt Lake City. Finland’s Markku Koski (41.5) kept the Americans from repeating their history-making sweep of 2002, although not by much. U.S. rider Mason Aguirre finished fourth, 1.2 points behind Koski. American Andy Finch also advanced to the finals with the fourth-best score on the first qualifying run, but fell on his first finals run, aggravating an injured left foot.
“We knew when we came over here we were bringing one of strongest halfpipe teams ever,” Keene said. “We had hoped to sweep the podium – I won’t lie. We ended up with first, second and fourth and it’s still pretty darn good.”
In halfpipe finals, riders get two trips down the chute and only their best score counts.
By the time White – “Il Pomodoro Volante,” as he’s known in Italy – was ready for his second run, everyone else had failed to match his first score.
He raised both arms in triumph, hugged his coaches and waved to the crowd. The run became a victory lap, and White closed it out by playfully surfing across the icy ledge of the halfpipe before celebrating with fans at the bottom, briefly clutching his head in both hands.
He later credited his parents for supporting his skateboarding and snowboarding, even through injuries that included a broken foot, broken hand and cracked skull.
“I don’t land all the time. It’s been a trip for them as well,” White said. “That’s why I say it’s been an honor to have my parents here and get a gold for them.”
It would be hard to question his parents’ encouragement now. White is world-famous among skateboarding and snowboarding fans, with a clothing line, DVD and endorsements worth more than $1 million.
About the only way things could get better for the 19-year-old Californian is if he could count a certain 21-year-old U.S. figure skater – who also does 1080s – among his biggest fans.
“I’m hoping Sasha Cohen digs gold medals,” White said. “We have a lot in common.”
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