Using pressure as fuel, White takes place among rare champions
CYPRESS MOUNTAIN, British Columbia -- During one of the many light moments at a press conference late Wednesday night,
Having just successfully defended his gold medal from the 2006 Turin Olympics, White promised to hit "every street in Vancouver" -- implying a pub crawl of some kind -- "with this guy on my shoulders."
"This guy" was his American teammate and halfpipe bronze medalist,
The notion of the slight redhead carrying his larger teammate was droll, but, on this night, not out of the question. As NBC's snowboarding analyst
He wasn't referring to White's physique. He was talking about the 23-year-old's uncanny ability to deal with -- to use as fuel -- the pressure that piled up on him during the build-up to these Games.
Only one other American athlete arrived in Vancouver bearing the weight of such great expectations, and
"It's his enemy and his ally," said
It was Keene who stood beside White at the top of the pipe with gold already in the bag. Each rider took two runs in the finals. Only their best one counted. White opened with five technically flawless hits, highlighted by a front double-cork 1080, into a cab double-cork 1080.
A boiled down primer: As of very recently in this sport, guys could podium and win with massive straight airs and horizontal spins. By the end of 2008, however, those spins had gone a bit stale -- not to be confused with the elegant frontside stalefish 540 White threw in his first finals run. The sport was becalmed, in need of fresh ideas. But what was the new frontier? Where could the riders go from there?
Upside-down, is where. Launching themselves from the shoulders of legends like
By increasing the "Wow!" factor, boarders also jacked up the danger. Last June 18, for a story on
The fun ended when Pearce, attempting a switch double Haakon flip, slammed his board into the deck, then rag-dolled to the bottom of the pipe. He'd broken a bone in his right ankle, and would not ride for another three months. In that story I quoted
He was proved prophetic on the last day of 2009, when Pearce caught an edge while landing a cab double cork -- a trick he'd nailed before -- and slammed headfirst into the wall of the pipe at Park City, Utah. Despite wearing a helmet, he suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. After a month in a Salt Lake City hospital, Pearce was recently transferred to Denver's Craig Hospital, a leading rehab facility for victims of TBI. According to reports, doctors say he is now able to walk and "perform daily activities with assistance."
Shaken, the Frends nonetheless kept riding. A week after Pearce's crash, Davis beat White with a mind-blowing run featuring two double-corks and a cab 900. White
"The next morning I flew to Park City," he recalls. "And the next day I learned the trick."
"The trick" is his piece de resistance, the Double McTwist 1260, a.k.a. the Tomahawk, a double-flip, three-and-a-half spin maneuver that White has called the most difficult and dangerous he's ever attempted. White busted it out in the X-Games, which he won, and where it became abundantly clear that, if he was on his game in Vancouver, or even within an area code of it, the battle would be for silver.
Of that decision to scrap his vacay and report back to the office, so to speak, White says, "That's just kind of a little piece of what I go through in my mind."
Since he opened the door, let's keep poking around in there. The White we see in press conferences and commercials is a whimsical cut-up, a grinning, gregarious, mop-top. Behind the curtains of that glorious mane lurks another personality, and it isn't smiling. In the moments before he drops into the pipe, White becomes something much more cold-blooded: one those rare champions -- like
The irony of Wednesday night was that, by the time it was White's turn to take his second run, he didn't need the Tomahawk. The first run, the conservative place-holding run, held up. When Lago landed on his bum midway through his second run, White had officially repeated.
Keene advised him to take a so-called victory lap -- "Some slashes and sprays and stuff," said White, "But I came all the way to Vancouver to do something amazing." And he did, throwing down an epic run -- it was scored 48.4 -- capped by the Tomahawk.
It wasn't perfect. Approaching the wall for that final hit, he needed a little more speed to pull it off, "but he somehow bulldogged it through," said
The safe play would've been to take zero chances, to get down the hill doing S-curves and waving to the crowd. Instead, he launched on the scariest trick ever invented, and pulled it off. It said everything about who he is on the inside, in the dark. It said, Pay attention to the man behind the curtain.