SOCHI -- A quick primer on the trick Iouri Podladtchikov used to upend Shaun White and win gold in the men’s halfpipe. It’s four twists wrapped inside two flips, aka a double-corked 1440, aka the YOLO, which stands for “You only live once.” In his final run, defending gold medalist White attempted his own version of the YOLO, but ended up butt-checking the wall of the pipe, sliding to an unaccustomed place: off the podium.
Asked afterward if he might have won a medal even without the YOLO, the 25-year-old known as I-Pod didn’t skip a beat.
“Yes,” he replied, “just with my looks.”
Laughter rippled through the press conference. The truth is, the Russian-born Swiss national has high, Slavic cheekbones and piercing blue eyes – Count Vronsky in Vans. After winning gold and collapsing to his knees, then making a snow angel, he was embraced by White, who finished fourth. What had the dethroned king whispered in his ear? Podladtchikov didn’t answer directly.
“Everyone is asking that question,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Where’s the party?’”
But he understood why it had to be asked. White’s loss, and failure to medal -- indeed, no Americans won a medal in a discipline they have owned for a dozen years -- is as big a story at these games as I-Pod’s win. Flipping and spinning his way to gold in the last two Olympics, White had built up a veneer of invulnerability. The centerpiece of NBC’s coverage, he’d created controversy a week earlier by pulling out of snowboard slopestyle. Here, the script took an unfamiliar turn. The darling of the last two Winter Games found himself taking guff from two fronts. Riders disputed his characterization of the slopestyle course as dangerous, accusing him of bailing because he was afraid he’d lose. White also took heat, properly, for squandering an Olympic berth that could have gone to someone else.
By doubling down on a single event -- “I felt like my best bet was to focus on the halfpipe,” White said -- he jacked up the pressure on himself. He was willing to endure criticism for abandoning slopestyle because it bought him time to practice in the pipe. But then, as White noted late Tuesday night, “the halfpipe had some issues.”
The walls were “over-vert,” the snow granular and sugary, the flat bottom filled with half-foot of slush. Frustrated riders tried to outdo one another calling it bad names:
“Sh---y,” said Team USA’s Danny Davis.
“Disappointing,” said a more diplomatic White. Workers spent Monday night firming the snow, scattering salt on it, then hosing it down with water. And while the pipe was much improved in time for the event, it was still a challenge to ride: corrugated through the flat bottom, the walls soft and quickly rutted. Thirty runs into the first qualifying heat, 18 riders had biffed, some spectacularly, crash-landing on the deck of the pipe like wounded fighter planes onto the deck of an aircraft carrier.
The first heat had the feel of a JV game, although it did include eventual silver medalist Ayumu Hirano, 15, whose father owns a surf shop in Murakami, Japan and who hurtles out of the pipe, on his straight airs, like a man shot out of a circus cannon.
The second heat had more marquee names: White, Davis -- one of the few riders to have beaten the erstwhile Flying Tomato -- and the rising Chinese star Yiwei Zhang. But the most intriguing, maddening talent in the field was Podlatchikov, of the artistic, athletic style and brittle temperament. Frankly, the guy has been a head case, coming up small on the biggest stages, most recently at the X-Games, where he failed to land the YOLO, handing the gold to Davis.
And there was iPod, wiping out on his first run in qualifiers. That was the head case we’ve come to know and love. Despairing thoughts poured in.
“Oh my God, what is this?” he recalled thinking. "'Damn, so now I’ve gotta wait another four years now?’ I was really that low.”
Fighting nerves so severe that “I couldn’t feel anything,” he gutted out an 82 in his second run. Where White, Davis and eventual bronze medalist Taku Haraoka of Japan skated directly to the finals, iPod would have to battle his way through the semis. That ended up being a very good thing. Those two extra runs “gave him a better feel” for conditions, said the Swiss team coach, Pepe Regazzi. “He came out saying, ‘Now I know how to ride this pipe.’”
He backed that boast up with a strong first run in the finals: three double-cork tricks with serious amplitude and stylish grabs. The Swiss contingent grumbled that his score -- 86 -- came in on the low side.
His gold-medal winning run was, arguably, the most difficult ever put down in competition, ending with a series of increasingly challenging tricks: a backside double cork 12, into a frontside double cork 10, into the YOLO … followed by I-Pod taking a euphoric dive onto the bench at the bottom of the pipe, then spiking his board into the snow.
Surely White would unseat him. After cruising through qualifiers, he was brimming with confidence, hinting at exotic tricks in store. But that confidence seemed to wither after he made a hash of his first run in the final, scoring a 35 -- Who is this redhead, and what have you done with Shaun White?
The Shaun White who arrived in Russia was a dramatically different (and more interesting) iteration of the 23-year-old who cruised to gold in Vancouver. He is a CEO, musician, skateboarder, clothes designer and full-time celebrity. His determination to diversify, to pursue multiple passions, influenced his decision to compete in two events.
The obvious question, following his stunning crash-and-burn at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, was whether or not he’d spread himself too thin, to the detriment of both disciplines. Or did he simply have a tough night on lousy pipe?
“Tonight was just one of those nights,” he said. “It’s a bummer. I had a game plan, I had a specific run I wanted to land, and I didn’t get to put that down.”
He instead found himself in a man-hug with I-Pod, whose hair he tousled -- flashing back, perhaps, to the good old days, when he too had long hair and won gold medals. Yes, he will be 31 in four years. And yet, beware Shaun White at the Pyeongchang Games. Asked if his victory marked the end of an era in snowboarding, I-Pod slapped that notion aside. “Definitely not. I don’t even want to know what’s happening in his head right now.”
Eventually, I-Pod shared a request he’d made of White. “Will you celebrate with me?”
“Yeah, man,” came White’s reply. But I-Pod was pulled away, he says, before he could ask, “Where’s the party?”
Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, the party was wherever I-Pod went.