SOCHI -- The mutant wolves and poison fog of the Hunger Games had nothing on the slopestyle course. This cruel and unusual mash-up of rails, boxes, jibs and jumps put the “extreme” in the Rhosa Khutor Extreme Park. Ringed by the serrated peaks of the Caucasus, this was the track that claimed two athletes to injury before Thursday's qualification rounds even started; the course whose massive kickers (jumps) were flinging riders nearly into orbit; the set-up that Shaun White found so "intimidating" that it forced him to pull out of the event, lest he endanger his chances to win a third straight gold medal in the halfpipe.
How treacherous was it up there, Sage Kotsenburg of Park City, Utah? Did you require an adult diaper? Did your life flash before your eyes?
“Super happy with the course, one of the best courses I’ve had all year,” Kotsenburg said. “It’s insane.”
Huh? Well, Sage was being polite, no doubt. He probably felt sorry for Anders Forsell, the course designer, who caught heat after the first day of practice, when riders found the kickers too big and too acutely pitched -- launching them upward at too severe an angle. Tell us, Chas Guldemond, did the sight of the course make you want to update your living will?
“Second-best course of the year,” said Guldemond, of Truckee, Cal., who put the X-Games slopestyle setup first.
“I don’t think this course is more dangerous than any other course,” reported Sebastien Toutan, one of three Canadian riders who are podium favorites. “Slopestyle’s an extreme sport.”
True, Forsell worked closely with the athletes after each of the three practice sessions, shaving the kickers to the point where, by Thursday, some riders weren’t sailing far enough, landing on the “knuckle” of the jump. But his original layout must have been deeply dangerous. How else to account for the broken collarbone suffered by medal contender Torstein Horgmo of Norway?
“It’s a bummer that Torstein got hurt,” says Toutan, “but he got hurt on a rail feature” -- not on one of the scary jumps.
So you guys are saying the whole “Danger, Will Robinson” angle was, perhaps, over-amplified, blown out of proportion? “I think the media blew the dangerousness of the course up quite a bit,” contends Guldemond. “Everything we’ve done here is completely normal.”
Normal…for people who have devoted their young lives to flipping and spinning above hardpacked snow with a board strapped to their feet. As Norwegian Staale Sandbech put it, “It’s always dangerous to throw yourself off a jump and do a double or triple cork. We do it so often, we feel safe.”
Shaun White wasn’t feeling safe. Despite cosmetic surgery performed on the course that prompted Canadian rider Max Parrot to effuse that “it’s perfect from top to bottom, I don’t think there’s anything critical to say about it,” White pulled the plug on Wednesday afternoon, announcing in a statement, "With the practice runs I have taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on."
Parrot, whose sensational second run Thursday – he pulled down a 97.5 – made him the top qualifier, had a pretty good idea why White bailed on slopestyle. He wasn’t buying the “danger” hook.
“Shaun knows he won’t be able to win the slopes,” Parrot tweeted Wednesday. “That’s why he pulled out. He’s scared!”
White is more than an extreme athlete. He’s a corporate colossus, the CEO of Shaun White Enterprises. His brand is built on standing on top of the podium. White saw Parrot’s winning slopestyle runs at January’s X Games, featuring two double-cork flips and two triples. While he’s spent much time practicing in private and pulled out of the last two slopestyle events he’s been entered in -- so no one’s really sure what tricks he’s got in his quiver -- there’s the belief among slopestylers that White can’t quite hang with the Canadians. That would explains why Toutant joined his countryman in piling on White on Twitter: “Mr. White … It’s easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can’t win.”
Certainly his decision raised eyebrows on the U.S. team. “I was a little bummed out,” admitted Guldemond. “There were a lot of guys I trained really hard with sitting in that fifth spot.” He found it “unfortunate” that White’s eleventh-hour decision cost those riders their Olympic “opportunity.”
Mike Jankowski, the normally voluble and helpful head coach of Team USA’s snowboarding and freeskiing teams, took a pass when asked for a comment on White’s last-minute bail. “We would’ve loved to have filled” the spot vacated by White, said Tom Kelly, vice president of communications for the USSA. “You never want any spot to go unfilled.” But White pulled out so late in the going -- on the eve of the qualifiers -- “there was nothing we could do.”
By finishing in the top four of their heats Thursday, Americans Jamie Anderson and Karly Shorr advanced directly to the women’s finals. Both men’s and women’s riders who failed to place in the top four move on to the semifinals: Saturday for the men, Sunday for the women.
Perhaps the most surprising rider to proceed directly to the finals was Great Britain’s Jamie Nicholls, who pulled out a wildly difficult “switch 14” -- a trick he’d never landed in competition -- stomped it and was rewarded for his boldness. “I’m just gonna rip it,” he recalled thinking, “and see what happens.”
The morning sun had softened the snow, making the landings softer. “Now the course is perfect,” Nicholls exulted, “and everybody’s going for it.”
With one notable exception.