KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Shaun White had so rarely been in this spot, staring down the halfpipe and needing to execute a spectacular run to keep his perch atop his sport.
It is this kind of precarious position that usually makes the greatest athletes, forms their backbone and the unshakability it takes to win over and over again when all of your competitors are gunning for you. But White has been so dominant in becoming the face of snowboarding over the past decade that he has avoided the gut-check moment by which the giants are traditionally judged. For instance, in winning the Olympic men’s halfpipe gold in 2006 and 2010, White’s second run of the final had been nothing more than a victory lap.
Tuesday night at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park would ask much more of White, who fell during his first run. To make history as the first American male to win the same event in three consecutive Winter Olympics, he would have to beat Switzerland’s Iouri Podladtchikov, who had set fire to the course just a few runs before with a 94.25. White had scored a 95.75 earlier in the day during qualifying, so it was certainly possible, even in the subpar, slushy conditions that drew the criticism of the field.
White’s run was the last of the night, and he knew that he had to attempt all of his best tricks to beat Podladtchikov. But he struggled to land several of them cleanly, shocking the crowd and, most of all, Podladtchikov. When White had finished his run and was awarded a 90.25, good for fourth place, he and Podladtchikov embraced. They consider themselves friends, and so White told him congratulations.
“I’ve never seen him like this,” Podladtchikov said. “I’ve always wondered what it would feel like.”
That’s how great White has been. Most of his competitors had pretty much never seen him humbled. Imagine if Tiger Woods won every big golf tournament, or if Roger Federer had never met Rafael Nadal.
Podladtchikov truly couldn’t believe he’d won. Six times he had been at the X Games with White, and six times White had won. At this year’s X Games, White wasn’t competing, and Podladtchikov still didn’t win. Now he was at the top of the leader board with White on a mission to make history?
White was gracious in defeat, crediting the winner for thinking about tricks like he does. He was able to keep smiling because he could still see how much he and the sport had done for each other. Ultimately, it was just one of those nights that White knew existed but hadn’t experienced himself.
“I don’t think tonight makes or breaks my career,” White said. “I’ve been doing it for so long. I love it. It’s given me so much. I am happy to take this for what it is and move on and continue to ride and put my best foot forward.”
White, 27, now has pursuits other than snowboarding. He is a guitarist in a legitimate rock band, “Bad Things,” and talked about how he would recover from this disappointment through their music.
In the world of snowboarding, there are people who think that White has gotten too big, that he has sold out to make as much money as he can. If White became a rock star and never came back to the halfpipe, his fellow American snowboarders wouldn’t miss him.
Danny Davis, who finished 10th, was asked about White not winning a medal.
“I think it’s great,” Davis said. “The American public and the world now knows that there are other snowboarders beside Shaun White.”
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.