As his rivals unleashed ever more difficult—and dangerous—double corks, high-flying Shaun White simply did everything better, winning gold again and extending U.S. dominance of the halfpipe
This is an article from the March 1, 2010 issue
The skies had cleared over the most star-crossed venue at these Olympics, a vast rain magnet called Cypress Mountain. But the deluge was about to begin. Again. Twenty minutes before the start of the halfpipe competition in which U.S. men and women would win four of a possible six medals (for the third straight Olympics), the crowd of 2,000-plus was treated to a blast from the past. There on the jumbo screen was Ross (the Boss) Powers, soaring over the pipe at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
An exciting rider known for his massive straight airs, Powers can't be faulted for the fact that, eight years later, his gold-medal-winning run looks dated and quaint—like grainy footage of Bob Cousy's Celtics compared with LeBron and Kobe dueling in HD. "Today," observed one spectator at Cypress, "I'm not sure [Powers's] run would win the women's competition."
The speaker was Jake Burton, the benign emperor of U.S. snowboarding, who then hastened to say nice things about Powers, a rider of unquestionable talent. But Burton's point was valid. The halfpipe made its Olympic debut 12 years ago in Nagano, where the sign marking the venue said SNO-BOARDING. "They couldn't even spell it right," says Burton.
While the progression of tricks in the halfpipe was dramatic between Nagano and the '06 Turin Games, won by a 19-year-old phenom named Shaun White, since then it has achieved warp speed. White's gold-winning run in Turin, highlighted by back-to-back triple spins called 1080s, would not have gotten him into the finals last week at Cypress.
Which wasn't a problem for White. Now 23 and deeply weary of hearing himself referred to as the Flying Tomato (he prefers Red Zeppelin or Animal, based on his resemblance to the Muppet drummer), White arrived in Vancouver with an improved net worth—he pulled down $9 million in endorsements last year—and, he said, "a pretty mean run" up his sleeve. It was a measure of how far he is ahead of the competition that he didn't need that run to clinch victory.
Much like his gold-winning run in Turin, White's first ride last Wednesday night was highlighted by back-to-back 1080s. But there was a difference. While rotating horizontally, he was also flipping forward. The resulting off-axis spin is called a cork. When the rider flips twice, as White did, the trick is referred to as a double cork. The difference between a 1080 and a double-cork 1080 is the difference, roughly, between "the lightning bug and the lightning," as Mark Twain said on a different subject.
Double-corked tricks were the halfpipers' equivalent of the four-minute mile. As recently as a year ago no one was landing them in competition. "And now," White observed on the eve of the Games, "we're up to three in one run."
The last time "cork" was uttered this often in a sports setting, Sammy Sosa got suspended for eight games. It was all the buzz around the pipe: Which riders had the double cork in their quiver? You had, among others, Finland's Peetu (P2) Piiroinen, who took the silver, and surprise bronze medalist Scotty Lago of the U.S., who left Vancouver abruptly three days later, after a couple of racy photos surfaced on the Internet. Lago was reprimanded by the grandees of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, who won gold in the unofficial Hypocritical Stuffed Shirts competition. The pics—really rather harmless—were snapped while Lago was celebrating with teammates. One of them showed a woman biting down on his medal. (Perhaps she was checking to see if it was corked?)
Also in the double-corked club: Switzerland's Iouri (iPod) Podladtchikov, who finished fourth, and Kazuhiro Kokubo, the dreadlocked Japanese rider who came in eighth, possibly distracted by the furor he'd raised back home. On the day the Japanese contingent flew to Vancouver, Kokubo arrived at the airport with his tie loose and his trousers sagging. For his egregious lack of conformity, he was forced to issue an apology and suspended from the opening ceremonies. (We hereby award silver to the stuffed shirts in Japan.)
One rider in the women's field was believed capable of executing the double cork. But Torah Bright didn't throw it down at Cypress. No matter. After botching her first run in the finals—Bright crashed twice—the effervescent Aussie launched into the devilishly difficult switch backside 720, which requires her to take off backward (or "switch") into two blind spins, then stick a blind landing. She did and won Australia's first gold medal of these Games.
Finishing behind Bright, in order, were a pair of Americans: Hannah Teter, who won gold in this event in Turin, and Kelly Clark, who stood atop the podium in Salt Lake City. Since 1998, 24 medals have been awarded in halfpipe. Americans have won 14 of them.
Why does the U.S. own this event? Clark put it in a nutshell, pointing out that snowboarding was invented and established in the States, "resorts were open to it earlier, in the '90s, and now more and more of them are committed to making good parks and pipes." Other countries struggle to catch up to the U.S., pointed out The Globe and Mail's David Naylor, "because they're chasing a moving target." They improve, but the Yanks improve more. By the time the rest of the world had figured out backside 1080s, White and a handful of his fellow pioneers were already going upside-down in the pipe, on a quest for the double cork.
Even if you're wearing a helmet, it can be a dangerous quest.
The boisterous crowd of Aussies cheering last Thursday night included a septet of not especially fit men whose painted midsections spelled out G-O T-O-R-A-H. It did not include Marion and Peter Bright of Cooma, Australia. Or so Torah thought. She's getting married in Utah this June. Concerned that two trips across the Pacific would be too expensive, she instructed her parents to sit the Games out.
"Whatever you want, Torah," they assured her, all the while arranging transportation to Vancouver. It was after she'd completed her final run that the 23-year-old noticed a familiar sandy-haired man in the green-and-gold crowd. It was Peter. Upon realizing that her parents had disobeyed her, she burst into tears.
While her daughter was whisked away to mandatory drug-testing, Marion Bright talked about the afternoon in January when she returned home, made herself lunch, turned on the TV and saw video of her semiconscious daughter being carried from the halfpipe at the Winter X Games in Aspen. Bright had suffered a concussion in a training run while attempting, as Marion refers to it, "the double-twisting thing."
"She was being dragged off the snow, her head lolling back," recalls Marion, who says that in addition to suffering three concussions since New Year's, Torah had "a shocking accident before Christmas" in which she dislocated her jaw while trying to perfect a new trick—a double crippler. Thanks to a therapist who "readjusted the jaw and did all the skull bones," says Marion, Torah was back on the snow in a week.
On the day Bright was cleared to ride, her friend Kevin Pearce was training on her home pipe in Park City, Utah. That was the day on which Pearce, one of the few riders on the planet to have beaten White in recent years, caught an edge executing a double-corked move and slammed his head into the pipe. Despite wearing a helmet, he suffered a traumatic brain injury. After a month in a Salt Lake City hospital, he was recently transferred to Denver's Craig Hospital, a rehab facility for victims of TBI.
Pearce and Lago are members of a confederation of pro boarders called Frends—the I is omitted to denote selflessness (SI, Dec. 7, 2009). By banding together, sharing accommodations on the road and supporting each other at contests, they create a contrast—quite deliberately—between themselves and the more solitary White. Last winter one of White's sponsors, Red Bull, dropped $500,000 to build the Animal his own private halfpipe in Silverton, Colo. There, in his secret mountain lair, White dialed in a handful of double-corked tricks.
Nike, a sponsor of Pearce's, responded by subsidizing a private pipe for him on the backside of California's Mammoth Mountain. Pearce promptly invited his Frends. Among those practicing their unique double-corked moves was a Michigan native and ex--high school football player named Danny Davis, whose style is a rare combination of explosive amplitude and technical precision.
A week after Pearce was hospitalized, Davis went head-to-head with White at the Grand Prix Olympic Qualifier at Mammoth. Davis's final run featured a trio of double-corked moves, ending with a switch double-back rodeo "that blew people's minds," says U.S. snowboarding coach Mike Jankowski. "As it should have."
Stunned by his defeat, White scratched a planned three-day vacation and headed for Park City. "And the next day," he recalls, "I learned the trick."
"The trick" is his magnum opus (to date), the double McTwist 1260, a.k.a. the Tomahawk, named for a sensational steak White once ate at an Aspen restaurant. He describes the double-flip, three-and-a-half-spin maneuver as the most difficult and dangerous he's ever attempted. "It's my friend and my enemy," he says. "I show up one day, feel great and can put it down anytime I want. Another day I show up, and I can't even attempt it."
While wrestling with the Tomahawk, White learned that Davis had removed himself from Olympic contention after crashing an ATV into a closed gate early in the morning of Jan. 17. Davis suffered a fractured pelvis and L3 vertebra. While he is expected to make a complete recovery, he's on the shelf for the rest of this season.
While it firmed up nicely in time for the competition, the rain-soaked halfpipe was a mess leading up to the Games. Two days before the men's event, its flatbottom contained so much slush and crud that it turned into a kind of mogul field. "I've been with Shaun every day he's boarded this season," says Gabe L'Heureux, his Burton team manager. "I've never been more impressed with him than on that day. Three times he did his full run, including the Tomahawk, despite having to basically ollie through the flatbottom."
Finally, White felt ready to throw the Tomahawk in competition. Naturally, he didn't need it. With name riders pratfalling left and right, White's deliberately conservative first run, which earned him a 46.8, held up for the gold.
But he still had another run to take. Up at the top, his personal coach, Bud Keene, urged him to take a victory lap—"Some slashes and sprays and stuff," said White. "But I came all the way to Vancouver to do something amazing."
"Don't do it unless you're going to stomp it," warned Keene.
The Animal stomped it, throwing down an epic run—it was scored 48.4—capped by the show-stopping Tomahawk.
"He'd worked so hard on that trick," says Adam Moran, Burton's global team manager. "He had to put it down for his own sanity. Otherwise, all he'd be talking about for the next six months would be, 'Why didn't I do it?'"
Surely these maneuvers represent the outer limits of what is possible on a halfpipe. Surely the time has come to pull back, take another direction. More spins, perhaps.
Actually, says Keene, by moving into the realm of double corks, "we just increased the possibilities exponentially. What we've seen so far is front-side double corks, cab double corks, and Shaun does a backside double cork." There are so many other directions in which you can spin, he points out. "We haven't seen a switch backside double cork, nor have we seen any alley-oop double corks." You get his point. We're still on the ground floor of these rotations. As Keene puts it, "These are the building blocks we can use to create tricks we haven't even begun to use yet."
It is incredible and inevitable: Eight years from now, and possibly sooner, the Tomahawk will seem dated and quaint.