WHAT WAS wrong with this picture? Here was Shaun White standing on the lowest step of the podium at an Olympic qualifier in December. The reigning King of the Halfpipe has long shared the competitive philosophy espoused by Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights: If you ain't first, you're last. Yet there he was, professing to be thrilled by his third-place finish, smiling for the cameras and bumping knuckles with the two Norwegians who'd just schooled him.
This is an article from the Feb. 3, 2014 issue
That's because the event they'd just contested wasn't the halfpipe. On this frigid afternoon at Colorado's Copper Mountain three days before Christmas, White, Torstein Horgmo and Stale Sandbech had finished 3-2-1 in slopestyle, in which athletes launch off a series of jibs, rails and jumps, executing a variety of highly technical, insanely difficult freestyle maneuvers.
Well, usually that's what they do. After stomping his first run to take the lead at Copper, White took an ungainly tumble off the first rail on his second run, reprising the Agony of Defeat crash of the hapless ski jumper at the beginning of ABC's Wide World of Sports. His run was over before it started. Rather than sulk or fume, White celebrated when his first run held up for third place.
"Top three finish, top American finish—I'm very happy," he insisted afterward. Surprisingly, he meant it.
He stood on the podium clutching two prizes: a Paul Mitchell lunch box and a skateboard. The first called to mind those late, lamented auburn locks he sheared off in December 2012. ("I'm lighter ... I can go higher now," he says.) The second served as a reminder of his Renaissance man's range. The winner of the last two Olympic gold medals in the men's halfpipe has also won five skateboarding medals at the Summer X Games. White designs clothes, collects art, serves as the CEO of Shaun White Enterprises and plays lead guitar in a band called Bad Things, which performed on the main stage at Lollapalooza in Chicago last summer and recently dropped its first album. He is a restless, creative spirit whose talents can't be contained by a single discipline. So it wasn't surprising, after the IOC announced that slopestyle would be one of the new sports on the program in Sochi, that White decided to double down.
White is one of eight riders in the 16-year history of Olympic snowboarding to have won two medals. No rider has won medals in separate events. In trying to be the first, White is ranging out of his comfort zone—but only a few steps. He's not Bo Jackson, killing it in the NFL and MLB. He's more like Charles Woodson, going both ways for Michigan in the mid-1990s. White isn't learning a new event from scratch: Eight of his 18 Winter X Games medals have come in slopestyle, five of them gold. "Shaun's always been an amazing slopestyle rider," says Mike Jankowski, the U.S. head coach of halfpipe and slopestyle for both snowboarding and free skiing. "I wouldn't call him an underdog."
Maybe not, but when Mark McMorris shows up at a slopestyle venue, everyone else is an underdog. A plainspoken 20-year-old from Regina, Saskatchewan, McMorris was the first boarder to land a 1440 triple cork in competition. That's three revolutions wrapped in two off-axis flips. For the longest time, this move eluded White, who reportedly now has the triple in his quiver but so far has only landed it in practice. White's Olympic odds improved a bit last Saturday when McMorris cracked a rib in the slopestyle finals at the X Games (which White had skipped, in order to polish his run for Sochi). McMorris remains the Olympic favorite, though a less commanding one.
The younger rider has been an unwelcoming alpha, sometimes giving off a prickly, territorial vibe when asked about White. McMorris seems to regard the American as a day-tripper, a carpetbagger. He has questioned White's commitment to slopestyle ("He doesn't ride rails. He doesn't watch snowboarding"), implied that White gets favorable treatment from X Games judges and called him out for, well, not being a bro ("He's so lame. He's on his own page; he doesn't hang out with anybody but himself").
White is unaccustomed to such impertinence. Surely he would cherish the opportunity to silence this Canadian whippersnapper with the world watching. For that to be possible, however, the planet's best-known snowboarder needed to earn a spot on the U.S. slopestyle team, a task that proved far more nerve-racking than anyone had expected. After wrenching his ankle in the pipe at the season's first Olympic qualifier, White was forced to pull out of the slopestyle event, posting a Facebook picture of himself reposing on a sofa while icing the bum ankle. Hashtag: #RoadtoCouchi.
That ratcheted up the pressure for the second qualifier, at Copper Mountain, which explained the curious sight of White and his coach, Bud Keene, sharing an embrace of joy and relief after the erstwhile Flying Tomato took third behind the Norwegians—a result that greatly boosted his chances of making the team. He finally clinched his slopestyle berth in the penultimate qualifier but only after more drama: One of his qualifying runs ended with him augering face-first into the snow, where he lay for five minutes as paramedics attended to him. Bloodied but unbowed, White returned that afternoon to win the event—and make the U.S. team in slopestyle—after which he deadpanned, "I have a date with a tub of ice right now."
Spoken like the old fogy he is rapidly becoming. White is 27 in human years, which equates to double that number in snowboarding years. With his respectable new 'do and staid, grown-up endorsements—including Target and Hewlett-Packard—he's tacked much closer to the mainstream than the spindly, grinning hair farmer who won gold in Turin eight years ago.
The same can be said of his signature event. Once the realm of upstarts and rebels, the halfpipe now has the whiff of the establishment. It's being pushed in that direction by the introduction, in these Olympics, of a wave of new extreme-sport events, including not just snowboarding slopestyle (and the more sedate snowboarding slalom) but also halfpipe and slopestyle skiing. Bob Costas, NBC's main host for the Sochi Games, recently characterized events such as slopestyle as "Jackass stuff they invented and called Olympic sports." (After providing that description on the Today show, Costas presumably returned home, prepared a glass of Metamucil, then shouted out his window, "You kids get off my lawn!")
The criticisms from Costas and his staid ilk are apt to fade once the haters have watched more slopestyle. It's harder for any Team USA fan to dismiss a sport—to ignore the discipline and sacrifice that goes into it—when the winner is standing on a podium, leaking tears, as the national anthem plays in the background. Since halfpipe and snowboard cross were added to the Olympic program in 1998 and 2006, respectively, American athletes have won 17 of the 36 medals awarded in those events. Even taking into consideration the presence of superb international talents, that U.S. dominance will likely be magnified by the new disciplines.
But snowboarding is suddenly facing an Olympic challenger. Once derided as squares by the boarders, free skiers are the new barbarians at the gate. The same course shredded by the snowboarders will also serve as the venue for men's and women's ski slopestyle. Likewise, the double-plankers will take over the halfpipe once White & Co. have dispersed.
Just as the boarders chafed at the heavy hand of the Man—officials from the International Ski Federation (FIS)—in their Olympic infancy, some free skiers, we learn from Powder.com, resent the "inherent hypocrisy of freeskiing being sanctioned and regulated by the FIS."
Judge us, they are saying. But don't tread on us.
MADDIE BOWMAN wasn't questioning authority. Her decision to get a tasteful piercing in her right nostril during her senior-class trip to Disneyland was merely an expression of her individuality. Her mother, Sue, took one look at it and said, "It's your face."
"But now," Bowman reports, "she doesn't mind it."
Bowman's parents are accustomed to her independent streak. They were both ski racers, and Bowman raced until she was 13, then bailed. She wasn't having fun. "I got tired of the people," she recalls, "and how serious they were."
The halfpipe at her local mountain, Sierra-at-Tahoe, in Northern California, called out to her. "I made great friends," she says, "and we had a blast, all the time." Bowman entered a few competitions and surprised herself. Two years ago her success in a handful of smaller ski halfpipe events earned her a spot at the X Games, where she took silver. A year later she won at X, and she has kept on winning. In her final three Olympic qualifiers, she placed second, first and first.
The silver came on a snowy night at Copper. The accumulation of white stuff in the pipe slowed the riders, not much but enough to slightly diminish their amplitude—for which Bowman felt compelled to apologize to a reporter. "When it's not snowing," she said, "people are going a lot bigger."
Bowman, 20, is great friends with Aaron Blunck, 17, a fellow halfpiper whose trajectory has been similarly steep. While his coaches were grooming him for 2018, Blunckie blew up. His multiple podiums in 2013 included a victory at the Copper Mountain qualifier. The new plan is to get him ready for Sochi, where he'll be a legit medal threat. "Guys like Aaron getting on the podium—that just pushes the pros, and they end up raising the bar even higher," says Jankowski.
Growing up in Lawrenceburg, Ind., Nick Goepper dreamed of X Games medals (ski slopestyle wasn't yet an Olympic event) as he set up a rail in his backyard, then worked on the tricks he'd seen his idols do—pioneering free skiers like Simon Dumont and Tom Wallisch. "I'd do that all summer long," recalls the 19-year-old Goepper.
Excuse me, summer?
"Well, yeah. I'd lay down AstroTurf." The fake grass is plenty slippery, Goepper explains, and the friction coefficient could be further lowered by the liberal application of dishwashing liquid to the bottoms of his skis.
His ability to adapt to his surroundings helped Goepper win a Dew Tour event in mid-December despite flipping his way down the course without poles, the result of competing with a broken left hand.
Another youngster who has joined the Olympic medal conversation is Arielle Gold, a 17-year-old snowboarder from Steamboat Springs, Colo. In the halfpipe at Copper on Dec. 21 she stormed into the lead with a 91.5. The next boarder to drop in was Kelly Clark, now 30 and bearing down on her fourth Olympics. Her message to Gold: Not tonight, kid. Boosting as high above the lip as some of the guys, she threw down a 95. Clark, who has two Olympic medals, including the gold from 2002, will be very tough to beat in Russia.
Arielle settled for silver, but the Gold family wasn't finished. On the strength of a clean, stylish run highlighted by a front-side 1260 that flowed into a sublime, rarely thrown Double Michalchuk (YouTube "Michael Michalchuk"), Taylor Gold, 20, won gold on the men's side.
After posing for a family portrait in the pipe, Taylor explained that he hadn't felt much pressure. "I'm on the rookie team. We're the underdogs."
During the off-season, he went on, "we have these U.S. team snowboarding camps. Everyone you can imagine is there—except Shaun White, he's doing his own thing—and we all push each other."
Can't blame White for doing his own thing. It's worked out well for him so far. On the night of Feb. 11, as he drops in for his final halfpipe run at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in the Caucasus Mountains, what will be at stake? Will he be seeking redemption for a disappointing performance in slopestyle three nights earlier? Or will he be aiming for a second medal? Will a certain brash Canadian have been served a comeuppance? You'll probably want to turn on the TV and pull up a chair. Or a couchi.
Ready for Sochi? For sport-by-sport previews as well as photo galleries and video of athletes from the U.S. and around the world, go to SI.com/Olympics