Tale of the tape: Shaun White vs. the world
In the world of halfpipe snowboarding, there's no question who the alpha dog is.
Winning gold medals in two straight Olympics and dominating nearly every contest since then will do that for you.
Shaun White enters Tuesday's halfpipe competition as the odds-on favorite to win a third straight gold medal. And really, it's hard to argue against that assessment.
Over the last four years, White has won nearly every single halfpipe contest he's entered - with one exception, but more on that later. In that time, everyone's been chasing him - trying to replicate his tricks, his amplitude, his consistency.
So, what's not to like? Well, there are a few factors this season suggesting that maybe - just maybe - there could be an upset in Sochi.
When White won gold in Vancouver, he wasn't just ahead of the curve - he was setting it. He won the halfpipe contest without even needing to land his brand new trick, the double McTwist 1260. Of course White did land it on his victory lap, and all that did was raise the bar of what it would take to defeat him. Just when other riders thought they were catching up in this arms race in the halfpipe, White was actually preparing to lap the field.
This year, the progression didn't start with White.
Embedded video_content_type: Shaun White working on new trick
White set his focus on mastering a triple cork - something never attempted in a halfpipe competition - and invested a lot of time and endured injuries trying to learn the trick - a trick he was never able to successfully put down on the snow. At least as far as we know.
While that was happening, one of White's key rivals - one of the few who could match White's double McTwist 1260 - was training hard to add an extra rotation to that trick. Iouri Podladtchikov of Switzerland successfully learned the trick - the double cork 1440, or as he calls it, the "YOLO flip" - and unveiled it at the European X Games. Upon seeing footage of the trick, White set about learning it for himself. In the end, White was successful and has already landed the double cork 1440 in competition, but it seems strange to see him playing catch-up to anyone else in the field.
Embedded video_content_type: What does Shaun White see during I-Pod's halfpipe run?
Then there's the injuries. A recurring ankle injury has nagged White over the course of the season, forcing him to withdraw from a slopestyle contest in Breckenridge at the iON Mountain Championships. White's taken a lot of other slams since then - a scorpion-style crash (board above the head) at a slopestyle qualifier in Mammoth, a black eye after another crash while training at his private facility two weeks ago. Those sorts of bumps and bruises can take their toll on a man, even one as talented as White.
But if you want proof that White can be beaten, here's the one fact you need to know: He was beaten just eight weeks ago.
In a stunning development, White uncharacteristically crashed on his first run in the halfpipe contest at the iON Mountain Championships, reaggravating that ankle in the process. Undeterred, White bounced back to put down his second run, but whether it was the injury - or something else - something was off. The cleanness and the amplitude weren't there, and as a result, White was relegated to a lower rung of the podium than he's accustomed to, finishing second behind Greg Bretz.
It was White's first loss in four years.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Through the Years: Shaun White
At times it literally does seem like it's Shaun White against the world. While some of White's competitors from different countries - including fellow American Danny Davis and Japan's Ayumu Hirano - chose to participate in a "Global Camp" training session in New Zealand where they all rode halfpipe and practiced together, White prefers to practice on his own private halfpipe in AUstralia.
As the accolades grow, the target on White's back becomes bigger and bigger. Even if it is the whole world versus Shaun White right now, that's just fine for a man as intensely competitive as White. He thrives off that feeling - he wants the competition to want to beat him, to push themselves to get better.
Here's the thing. The more other competitors push White, the better he gets. He explained the origin of that big trick from Vancouver in an interview with Snowboarder Mag: "Danny Davis beat me at the second qualifier before the last Olympics. I freaked out. That is why I learned the double [McTwist 1260.]
"Whenever I am faced with obstacles I push forward. I have to take a little step back to go forward."
Here's a look at White and the men who could challenge his quest for a three-peat in the halfpipe on Tuesday.
|Olympic medals||2 (both gold)|
|Past Olympic results||1st (2006, 2010)|
|X Games halfpipe medals||10 (8 gold, 2 silver)|
|Notable results this season||1st (U.S. Grand Prix, Mammoth #2), 1st (U.S. Grand Prix, Mammoth #3), 2nd (Dew Tour)|
Shaun White will be going for history on Tuesday, attempting to become the first American male to capture a gold medal in three consecutive Olympics. He'll be the heavy favorite to do so, but with some talented competition in the field, he'll likely need to dig into his full bag of tricks. Still, his massive amplitude helps set him apart from the rest of the field.
One element that could affect White's quest for a three-peat is the halfpipe itself, which White and other riders don't think is up to par right now. By White's own admission, he had a "pretty terrible" practice session on Monday.
|Past Olympic results||4th (2010), 37th (2006)|
|X Games Aspen halfpipe medals||2 (both silver)|
|Notable results this season||6th (X Games)|
Why he could win: Iouri Podladtchikov was the first to learn's Shaun White's double McTwist 1260 and more recently, was the impetus for White learning the double cork 1440. Podladtchikov has always seemed to be just a half-step behind White in the race to learn new tricks but may finally be on an even playing field with the two-time gold medalist. Podladtchikov could also have a home field advantage of sorts. He was born in Russia and competed under the Russian flag in 2006 before switching his nationality to represent Switzerland, where he had moved to when he was eight years old, at the 2010 Games.
|Residence||Mammoth Lakes, CA|
|Past Olympic results||12th (2010)|
|X Games Aspen halfpipe medals||1 (bronze)|
|Notable results this season||1st (Dew Tour), 2nd (U.S. Grand Prix, Copper), 3rd (X Games)|
Why he could win: Greg Bretz already beat Shaun White two months ago, becoming the first rider in four years to do just that. He also has Olympic experience under his belt from Vancouver and has been on the podium at three events total this season - all coming against an international field of riders.
|X Games Aspen halfpipe medals||1 (gold)|
|Notable results this season||1st (X Games), 1st (U.S. Grand Prix, Mammoth #1), 2nd (U.S. Grand Prix, Mammoth #3)|
Why he could win: Danny Davis isn't your typical halfpipe rider. Rather than huck double corks and big spins, Davis would rather focus on very technical "switch" riding and executing stylish tricks like methods and tweaked-out McTwists. It doesn't seem like a formula for a gold medal, but it's been working for him lately, as Davis has wins in two of the last four events he's competed in. Davis has to like his chances even better after seeing how the slopestyle contest was judged - Sage Kotsenburg won gold with a run that had technical, stylish tricks, while Mark McMorris was left with a bronze despite landing two triple corks that would have won many other contests. If the judges favor a similar style of riding in the halfpipe competition, it plays right into Davis's hand.
|X Games Aspen halfpipe medals||1 (silver)|
|Notable results this season||1st (FIS World Cup, New Zealand), 1st (Burton High Fives)|
Why he could win: At just 15 years old, Ayumu Hirano is considered the future of snowboarding. Despite his 5'1" frame, he gets more amplitude out of the halfpipe than most of his competition - something that not only impresses judges, but also allows him enough time in the air to potentially throw more technical tricks than others can do. He was the silver medalist at X Games Aspen last year and has nowhere to go but up in the years ahead.
Halfpipe coverage begins at 5 a.m. ET with the qualifying round live on NBCOlympics.com. The semifinal and final will follow later in the day.
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