January 22, 2015

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) Danny Davis made it look real easy. Shaun White - he made it look real hard.

That summed up the gulf between first and fourth place on the halfpipe at the Winter X Games on Thursday night.

Davis won his second straight X Games gold medal by laying down a leg-tweaking, fun-loving snowboarding show for the purists. White struggled all night in his first contest since last year's Olympics, and got the same, fourth-place result he ended up with in Sochi.

''Everybody has their contests,'' Davis said. ''Shaun has had his contest, like, 23 times. He's got tons of medals. Everybody has theirs, the days they're riding really well. I'm happy today was kind of my day.''

Taku Hiraoka of Japan added a second-place finish to go with his Olympic bronze. The Olympic champion, Iouri Podladtchikov, came in third - a remarkable finish considering he had surgery to repair his left ankle less than two months ago.

''I was lying in bed for a while, on crutches,'' Podladtchikov said. ''I mean, this is the happiest moment for me, to be back, to be pushing the limits with all these guys.''

Like White, Davis hasn't been riding that much this season. But things like practice - or, heck, even knowing what jumps he's going to try on any given run - don't mean as much to the 26-year-old Michigan native.

The biggest thing for Davis is keeping things free-flowing and not getting caught up in the multi-flipping tricks that carried so much weight in this sport until the last few years.

''I think we're getting to the point where everyone's doing the same tricks, the same run,'' Davis said. ''Judges want to see other things.''

His winning run on his third and final try in finals was good for a score of 93.66. It included only one jump with two head-over-heels flips. The rest were technical gems, highlighted by languidly long grabs of the board and huge tweaking of the legs. They may not look as great on TV, but any snowboarder will tell you it's every bit as difficult to virtually suspend your body and do only one rotation during a 19-foot flight above the pipe as it is to do the other stuff.

And if there were any further questions about where the judges are leaning, it came in the score they gave to Olympic silver medalist Ayumu Hirano of Japan, who was the only rider on this night to successfully land the Yolo - the super-hard trick Podladtchikov invented - which involves 1440 degrees of spin. Hirano finished sixth.

And White finished fourth, to put a cap on a mysterious and ultimately frustrating week in Aspen.

Before the contest, he said the X Games always get his competitive juices flowing - he's won eight times on the halfpipe in Aspen - and he needed a little something extra after nearly a year without a judged trip down the mountain. Other than briefly hinting at a slight back injury, he gave virtually no hints about his physical readiness, so the default-mode guess was that if he was showing up for a contest, he must be ready to go.

His very first jump out of the halfpipe certainly looked like it. He went 19 feet, 3 inches over the side to open his first, clean qualifying run. But he didn't look anywhere near that good again.

His last trip down the pipe, after two less-than-stellar rounds in the finals that had him in third place, only added to the mystery because it was so uneven.

On his first jump, he flew 19-10 over the pipe. Then, there were two consecutive unbalanced landings on 1080-degree jumps he usually does in his sleep. Then, despite traveling through the pipe at a snail's pace, he executed a near-flawless double-twisting, 1260-degree jump that most riders have trouble with at full speed. Amazing. But not enough. He gave a thumbs-up but his score of 62.66 wasn't in the ballpark. His second-run score of 82 would have to stand, and that wasn't good enough either.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist left without stopping to talk.

''You always measure someone's skills by their all-time best run,'' Podladtchikov said. ''Can he do better? Can he not do better? It's how we look at it inside the industry. We look at what he's capable of and Shaun is still capable of such gnarly runs.''

Not this time, though.

Davis is currently on top of the sport - and he's doing it his way.

''You just improvise. You snowboard. You don't have to have this dialed-in routine,'' he said. ''We're not figure skating. We're not anything like that. We're snowboarding, where style and creativity is rewarded.''

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