When the pressure was on, Shaun White landed the run that had haunted him for months, threw his hands into the air and tossed his helmet into the crowd. He didn’t wait to see his score to let the emotion of the day overtake him.
That’s the image that will remained burned into the mind of anyone who witnessed White’s historic performance Wednesday afternoon: the three-time Olympic gold medalist, head in hands, tears streaking his cheeks, humbled and human at the bottom of the halfpipe.
“I’ve never seen Shaun cry like that,” said his dad, Roger, tears in his eyes. “Seeing him cry made me cry. My tears are joy. It’s all over. All that pressure he’s had since Sochi, it built a fire under him.”
For White, the tears were about perseverance. Until he finished fourth at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, he’d never had to face the possibility that he might not be able to write his own ending. He’d had losses, but never in that mammoth a moment, never when the stage was set for him to drop in last, land a run and ride away the hero. “It’s awful to admit, but I was slightly defeated before I got to Sochi,” White said. “I was unmotivated. I didn’t have it in me.”
Until he crashed in New Zealand in October attempting to learn the cab double cork 1440, or YOLO flip, and suffered gruesome injuries that required 62 stitches in his face and five days in intensive care, he’d never realized how much he wanted a third Olympic gold.
“We were on this amazing path, I’m learning all these new tricks, feeling positive and then boom,” White said. “I’m in the hospital and I can’t recognize myself in the mirror. I was like, ‘What does this mean? Do I really want this? Stepping out on the snow again means I am willing to let this happen to myself again. That’s a big decision.”
His friends and family implored him to call it a career, spend more time at the beach, write a novel. “You’ve got medals,” White said they told him. “You’re blessed to be well off from this sport. You could easily sail off into the sunset.”
But he had set a goal, and he was going to complete it. When he thought about the alternative, he realized the decision wasn’t a hard one to make at all. Once he did, he went all-in. But his return to the sport wasn’t as easy for those around him to accept.
“I wanted him to stop snowboarding,” his mom, Cathy, said, tears streaming down her face. “I got that call in the middle of the night that he split his face wide-open, and it was horrific. But he wouldn’t stop. I was so upset with him. For him to come from that point to here is the strength of a true athlete. We never doubted him. We were just afraid.” For her, the tears were relief.
After the first runs Wednesday afternoon, White sat in first place with a 94.25, but had yet to attempt the cab double cork 1440 he believed he needed to win. Two weeks ago, at X Games Aspen, 19-year-old Japanese rider Ayumu Hirano became the first rider to land back-to-back 14s in a contest, and he planned to do the same in Pyeongchang. On his second run, Hirano, the silver medalist from Sochi, did just that and leapfrogged White into first place.
“Ayumu put in this amazing run,” White said. “And I had this overwhelming feeling of ‘I know I can do [the cab 1440], and I know I’m gonna do it, so just do it.'”
On White’s second run, he attempted back-to-back 14s — a combo he’d never even attempted in practice — but fell on the cab 14. “That gave him confidence,” said his coach, JJ Thomas, an Olympic bronze medalist who was part of the U.S. halfpipe sweep at the Salt Lake Games in 2002. As he spoke, Thomas began to cry. It’s been an emotional day, he said, an emotional few months. He knows how hard White has worked because it’s forced him to work harder than he has in his life. “I was like, this isn’t a bad thing, Shaun. It’s good. You have this. The judges know you’ve never done it before, so if you lay [the cab 14] down, you get surprise points. And he got those.”
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SOURCE: ESPN, Alyssa Roenigk