Shaun White goes for the gold twice in Sochi
The question hovers over Shaun White — not so much the way a black cloud might linger but more like a whiff of smoke he casually can bat away.
What if he's not good enough?
Instead of avoiding those sort of conundrums, the world's best snowboarder pursues them.
On the halfpipe, where he spent the better part of a year trying a trick he couldn't master but nonetheless emerged a favorite for a third straight Olympic gold.
Embedded video_content_type: Shaun White working on new trick
On the slopestyle course, where he eagerly took up the challenge presented by the Olympic overlords, who gave him a chance to win not one, but two, gold medals in Sochi.
Even on the concert stage — with a guitar in his hand — where White and his band will soon tour the country to promote their newly released album.
Much as they watch him do tricks on the mountain, fans will come to listen to the superstar play and see if he can make it as a rocker. Part of the thrill is knowing there's at least a chance that he cannot.
"I like it. I like the fact that these things are there," the 27-year-old action sports icon tells The Associated Press.
White heads to Sochi as arguably the most famous athlete competing: "It's going to push me to do things I never would've done before," he says.
White concedes there's more at stake this time — that he's had to grow up since the last time he hit the grand stage, in Vancouver four years ago.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Road to Sochi: Shaun White
Back then, he had the gold medal wrapped up with one run left — the so-called victory lap that meant nothing. White used it to stomp his biggest trick, the double McTwist 1260. It was one of the most electric moments of the Olympics: Totally unnecessary as far as the scoreboard went. But an absolute necessity as far as he was concerned.
"I've got to imagine he did it for himself, for everyone else, for the sport," says Jake Burton, the godfather of snowboarding and one of White's first key mentors. "He's got very high expectations for himself. I think the progression of the sport is one of the things he expects of himself."
Along those lines, White spent several months, starting in the spring of 2012, trying a triple cork — three head-over-heels flips. Nobody had ever done it in a halfpipe, and White couldn't either.
Yet he didn't recoil from releasing an unflinching portrayal of that setback in a self-produced documentary — a story that ends with a success: White's co-opting, then improving upon, a 1440-degree spinning jump that one of his key rivals, Iouri Podladtchikov, pulls off first. Podladtchikov, aka the "I-Pod," named it the "YOLO flip."
Embedded video_content_type: What does Shaun White see during a halfpipe run?
"That's the biggest compliment I could ever get in the sport," Podladtchikov says.
White's longtime coach, Bud Keene, describes the very calculating process the Olympic champion uses when he decides which tricks he'll focus on.
"He looks at the world standard, extrapolates it into the future based on how far the competition can push until game time, then adds 50 percent to that level," Keene says. "Basically, his formula for the Olympics is to show up one-and-a-half times better a rider as his nearest competition. That way, if he has a bad day and they have a good day, he can still win."
It's an even tougher hill to climb in slopestyle, a trick-filled trip down the mountain that White once dominated but more or less left behind for a half-dozen years to focus on the halfpipe.
When the International Olympic Committee added it to the program, presenting White a chance to win two golds, he never hesitated to throw his board into the ring. He did it knowing he'd be one of only a handful of riders who will try both disciplines — and did it knowing there are dozens of competitors who have been focusing on slopestyle exclusively while White's time has been divided.
At a key event in December that White missed because of injury, top-ranked Mark McMorris of Canada stomped a triple-flipping jump (which are daunting on the slopestyle course, but not as near-impossible as they appear in the halfpipe) and blew away the competition. Asked whether he or White should be the favorite in Russia, McMorris countered quickly: "You tell me, dog."
While all that was playing out, White was practicing about 100 miles away in Copper Mountain.
"All these competitors in slopestyle, they haven't really had to deal with me," he says. "I'm hoping I can surprise them a little bit. Show them something new."
It's always something new with him.
Clothing lines. Snowboard gear. Mountain bikes. Gum flavors.
Put them all together, and it's no wonder White has a 63 percent awareness among the general population, according to a survey by the global marketing research firm, Repucom. Seventy-four percent of people aware of White identify him as a trendsetter and 81 percent say he is influential in today's society; that's about the same number as Usain Bolt.
It helps explain how White can move the needle with something as mundane as, say, a haircut.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Model Olympian: Shaun White
These days, he sports a sleeked-back look that's more suited to the red carpet than the slopes, and bears little resemblance to the unkempt, tomato-red locks that were once his trademark. He donated his hair to Locks of Love, which serves financially disadvantaged kids who lose their hair due to medical reasons.
"I didn't get the magnitude of this decision until afterward, but I didn't really ask anyone," he says. "I just did it. It was something I wanted to do. I felt like it was a weight lifted. I felt like it was time. One of the best decisions I've ever made."
He feels much the same about throwing so much of his energy into his band, Bad Things, which released a self-titled debut album this month. The plan is for White to tour and promote the album after the Olympics.
"Whenever you put yourself out there for scrutiny, you're some sort of artist painting a picture or putting out music, you're definitely offering yourself up to be criticized," he says. "You're vulnerable. For me, it's great. Such a satisfying thing for me as a person. The only thing I do that involves teamwork, really."
Though he is surrounded by a team of a dozen or more — coach, publicist, cameramen, etc. — during some training sessions, White's day job, on the snowboard, really is a one-man show.
The two-month leadup to the Olympics has been grueling — filled with at least one significant injury (left ankle) and one big crash (on the slopestyle course in Mammoth, Calif.)
Embedded video_content_type: Shaun White overcomes a nasty fall
A day after the crash, White returned and stomped the YOLO flip on the halfpipe in a competition for the first time.
He skipped the Winter X Games, where he would have gotten the best look at his main competition and they could've seen him.
Instead, he trained privately, his eye fixed squarely on Sochi and the goal ahead: Two gold medals.
Improbable, some might say.
But a challenge the world's best snowboarder wouldn't think of shying away from.
"I've never really lowered my sights from that," White says. "It's driven me this far. At any competition, it's a risk you take that you might not win it, that someone might be better than you. But when you get into this, you know you're putting yourself up for that from the very beginning."
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