PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The pressure was real. So were the tears — of joy, relief, redemption.
This is why Shaun White keeps going. This is why the snowboarding superstar returns to the Olympics again and again, a journey that’s seen him evolve from teenage phenom to global brand to icon. One with a perpetual target on his back and impossible expectations to meet.
Standing atop the halfpipe on a gray morning early today at slushy Phoenix Snow Park with his hopes for a third gold down to one final shot. White never wavered.
“I honestly knew I had it,” White said. “I knew I had to put it down.”
The stakes left him little choice. Rising star and heir apparent Ayumu Hirano had snatched the lead out of White’s hand during the men’s halfpipe final, throwing a spectacular epic second run to vault into the lead and put a portion of White’s Olympic legacy at risk.
Not that it mattered.
One deep breath, a half dozen near-flawless tricks — including back-to-back 1,440s, a trick he never landed in competition before these finals — and one seemingly interminable wait later White’s return to the top of his sport was complete.
When his score of 97.75 flashed, more than two points clear of Hirano and almost six clear of Australian bronze medalist Scotty James, it all seemed worth it. The long road back from disappointment in Sochi four years ago. The painful recovery from a crash in New Zealand last fall that required emergency surgery. The notion the man who for so long served as a pioneer had been surpassed by the next generation.
Not quite yet.
“He wears the weight of the country and the world on his shoulders for this,” said J.J. Thomas, White’s longtime coach. “This is our Super Bowl. But bigger because it’s only once every four years and he stresses out.”
Hardly looked like it. White’s stomped third run made him the first American male to win gold at three separate Winter Olympics. Speedskater Bonnie Blair earned gold in the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Games. The gold was also the 100th overall gold for the United States in the Winter Games — all four U.S. golds in these Winter Games were won by snowboarders.
“What can I say? I won the Olympics,” White said. “Three gold medals. I was just hoping they’d give it to me. I was pretty sure I put it down but it took a little while. Just trying not to make eye contact with the judges.”
James, White and Hirano have eyed this showdown on the world stage for months and Hirano — who edged James in the X Games last month, an event White opted to skip after locking down a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team — shrugged when asked if he was concerned about the 98.50 White put up Tuesday to earn the right to go last in the finals.
“I know what he does and he knows what I do,” Ayumu said.
Namely, put on a show.
White put together a dazzling first run, throwing a single 1,440 early that scored a 94.25 to storm into the lead. Hirano responded immediately, uncorking back-to-back 1,440s. When the crowd exploded as his 95.25 posted, he simply shrugged his shoulders, unfazed by the enormity of it all.
Hirano missed an opportunity to go even higher when he washed out on his final run. James put together an unspectacular last set, setting the stage for White. He called the opportunity to go last his “good luck spot.” And with good reason. He went last during his gold medal runs in Turin in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010.
Yet White had the top of the podium locked up during his last sprint down the pipe on both occasions. This moment required something more. And he delivered.
“He’s an amazing athlete, an amazing rider and he’s achieved a lot of great feats in his career and today he did so again,” James said. “Yeah, it’s really cool.”
While the culture of snowboarding occasionally finds itself at odds with the competitive nature of the sport — James openly questioned the judging before the Games — White embraces it. His gold in Turin as a mop-topped 19-year-old made him the sport’s first breakout star. His repeat performance in Vancouver four years later, one he finished by drilling a “Double McTwist 1,260” with gold already in hand, cemented his status as arguably the greatest ever in his sport.
This time around, it felt different.
White’s loss in Sochi led him to do more than a fair amount of soul searching in the aftermath. His life became more complex as he tried to juggle his snowboarding career and the endless business opportunities it provided.
Injuries started to pile up. He arrived in South Korea with stitches in his mouth from that spill in New Zealand that still hadn’t fully dissolved.
In the interim, the sport that he defined went on without him. White found himself no longer inventing tricks so much as trying to master the pioneering acrobatics of others, including Hirano.
Labeled as snowboarding’s next big thing at 13, the 5-foot-2 Hirano is a twisting, flipping, boundary-pushing whirl hardly afraid at taking on his idol.
Just not ready, at least this time, to take him down.