Behind the Gold: Perfection earns ticket to ride
January 19, 2018
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. – Longevity is a hallmark of great athletic stars. So is the ability to dig deep and come back from adversity.
Saturday at Aspen-Snowmass, Shaun White stood at the top of the superpipe pondering his fate. Nearly two decades of thoughts rushed through his mind. It was 16 years to the day when a 15-year-old White finished second by a narrow margin to J.J. Thomas in the final Olympic qualifier for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
The innocence of the skateboarding teen that day at Breckenridge was replaced four years later by the Flying Tomato soaring to gold in Torino. In another year as a more mature, sophisticated super star, Shaun did it again in Vancouver. But on this Saturday afternoon in Aspen-Snowmass, White was the underdog again chasing a couple of new teenage phenoms in Ben Ferguson and Youth Olympic Games champion Jake Pates.
"It was this huge debate," said White later. "It's like do you play it safe and make the Olympic team or do you try to win it – you know? So at the top in the gates, that's what took me so long and they're like, 'Go,' and I was like, 'What am I going to do?'
"So I look at JJ (Thomas, now his coach) and he's like, 'You make the call.' I'm like, 'Don't do that to me now,' and it was Ricky Bower and JJ (who) were like, 'Do the YOLO. You've been stomping it all day and the doubles are cool, but the YOLO's even better and bigger.'"
It has been a rough year for Shaun White. A September training crash in New Zealand left him banged and bruised. He dropped out of sight. He dipped his toe back in the water at the December Toyota U.S. Grand Prix opener at Copper Mountain where he finished third. A week later at the Dew Tour, he failed to qualify for finals. Saturday at Aspen-Snowmass, he came into training fresh and looked strong. But he crashed on his first run and never really engaged in his second.
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It was now or never on his third run. White dropped in, knowing that if he wanted a chance to redeem himself and get a ticket to Pyeongchang, he needed to be perfect.
Perfect it was – like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Out of the gate, White served notice dropping in and launched into the YOLO early in his run – a 1440 move that includes two head-over-heels flips and a pair of 360-degree turns. He stuck it perfectly, then launching into a cab double 10, wrapping up with double 12s – a McTwist 1260 and a front double 12.
"It's been all about making the Olympic team and after having had a poor finish at the Dew Tour — it put a lot of pressure on me for the win at this event," White said. "And that was my goal – to win this thing!"
Sitting ninth out of 10 after his first run, White came back on his third and final run to score a perfect 100 to take the World Cup win over Australia's Scotty James in second and claim his fourth Olympic Team spot.
"Man, I'm tripping out," said White. "What a day."
Shaun White is what sport heroes are about. Since that snowy day at Breckenridge in 2002 when he narrowly missed the team, through his glory years in 2006 and 2010, to his bitter disappointment in Sochi when he refused to back off his run and finished fourth, somehow he has remained relevant. Just when he was counted out after the Dew Tour, he came back to show the world that he remained and remains one of the truly great athletes of his generation.
"People ask me what my greatest accomplishment in the sport is," said White, philosophizing. "It's like, 'what's your biggest win or whatever?' I'm like, honestly, it's being in that top level of the sport for this long. It's ever changing.
"It trips me out because I hang with J.J. and we competed together, man. He beat me out of my first Olympics when I was 15 and he's like, 'Dude, you're the last of the Mohicans. You're the last of the crew.'
"I love it. A perfect 100 – that was unreal. I was almost in tears, man, I shed a couple."