CYPRESS MOUNTAIN, British Columbia -- During one of the many light moments at a press conference late Wednesday night, Shaun White was asked what he intended to do next.
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, Scotty Lago, a terrific talent known, until recently, for his tendency, as Lago himself put it, "to choke when I needed to stomp."
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 Todd Richards had said earlier in the week, "Shaun's got broad shoulders."
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 Lindsey Vonn won her first gold medal while the men were still warming up for their first heat in the halfpipe. For White, the reigning king of his sport, anything short of the top step on the podium would've been a scalding disappointment. While it gnawed at his insides and kept him awake nights -- "I can finally go to sleep now!" he declared shortly after winning -- he made the pressure his friend.
"It's his enemy and his ally," said Bud Keene, White's coach. "He's scared of it, he embraces it. It gets him up in the morning."
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 David Benedict, J.P. Walker, Travis Rice and Mike Michalchuck -- "all the homies," as Lago says -- current riders like White, Louie Vito and Luke Mitrani started nailing down off-axis flips called "corks." By the time the Olympics rolled around, it had become clear that no one was getting on the podium without at least two double-cork hits in his run.
By increasing the "Wow!" factor, boarders also jacked up the danger. Last June 18, for a story on Kevin Pearce, I took a Sno-Cat up to a private halfpipe on the backside of Mammoth Mountain in California. The pipe was paid for by Nike, which sponsors Pearce, a supremely talented and gracious 22-year-old, and one of the few people on the planet to have beaten White in the pipe. Pearce was happy and excited that day. He and several members of his crew -- the now-notorious Frends -- were busy dialing in various double-corked moves. Mitrani was perfecting his "double-Michalchuck." Danny Davis was polishing his cab double-cork. Pearce had landed a Double McTwist. Before my eyes, they were accelerating the progression of their sport.
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 Jake Burton, whose company sponsors Pearce. "Every time these guys go for it, it's a leap of faith," said Burton of the new generation of double-corked moves. The halfpipe, he went on, "is just getting more challenging. And dangerous."
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 had been planning some R&R with his family in Carlsbad. But he was so upset by that defeat -- and found the prospect of losing to Davis in the Olympics so unacceptable -- that he cancelled his vacation.
"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 Michael, like Tiger before the fall -- put on earth to take the clutch shot.
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 Peter Foley, head coach of U.S. Snowboarding.
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.