Shaun White’s Olympic-size task: learn the trick that put him in a hospital
Something that Shaun White confided to five kids while shooting a commercial at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 2013 is now very relevant as he bids for a fifth Olympics and a fourth snowboarding gold medal.
“I’ll tell you my secret,” White shared between takes in a clip that made his film “Russia Calling.” “I try to watch someone else jump first, because I don’t want to be the first. I’m nervous. So I just sit and wait, and then somebody will hit it first, and then I can tell how fast I need to go.”
Back then, White was coming off trying and failing to learn a triple cork (three diagonal flips), a move so difficult and dangerous that no halfpipe snowboarder had ever done it in competition. His first practice attempt put him in the hospital. He said he almost cracked his pelvis on his second bid.
White shelved the trick in 2013 without ever landing it clean.
“Knowing how much we’ve worked on this and how much time and punishment that he’s put in and taken on it,” his then-coach Bud Keene said in 2013, “it’s pretty hard to imagine even almost anybody actually trying this thing.”
Another eight years went by without the triple cork becoming part of the halfpipe contest vernacular. Then Saas-Fee happened.
The world’s best snowboarders gathered in the Swiss Alps resort in October. It was an all-star camp ahead of a season that starts in earnest at this week’s U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colorado (live on NBC Sports).
Riders from the U.S., Japan and Australia don’t convene often outside of competition. Saas-Fee promised to be memorable. It was time for everybody to show their cards, to put out the tricks they’ll have in their bags for the Olympic season.
“The sport changed in the blink of an eye,” said J.J. Thomas, the U.S. head coach and White’s personal coach since 2015.
In a two-week span, Japan’s top four riders all landed clean triple corks, Thomas said. He saw 2018 Olympic silver medalist Ayumu Hirano land the first triple cork. White wasn’t there that day, but Thomas filmed it and texted it to him.
Thomas said that White’s response was, “Something along the lines of, I knew it was coming. Let’s go.”
White, in an interview after Saas-Fee, said he arrived there planning to work on the triple cork even before the Japanese started stomping them.
White landed about 20 “really good” triple corks not on snow, but into an air bag at a subsequent one-week camp in Austria, Thomas said. But White also landed triple cork after triple cork into an air bag in 2013, when, admittedly intimidated, he couldn’t bring himself to try it on snow again after earlier crashes.
White said he’s using the footage of the Japanese riders from Switzerland and comparing it to his old triple cork videos.
“I haven’t actually nailed it yet, but I have the road map in my mind,” he said last month while promoting a partnership with Krave jerky.
Thomas said that White, at 35 trying to become the oldest male Olympic halfpipe rider in history, could this week land his golden run from the PyeongChang Olympics if he had to. That level of difficulty shouldn’t be necessary to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team this winter given the top riders are international.
That 2018 run featured, at the time, the most difficult combination in the world -- back-to-back double cork 1440s.
Since, White took nearly two years off from riding a snowboard and three years off from competition. It was the longest break of a career that dates to missing the 2002 Olympic team by one spot at age 15.
“I haven’t really felt like an underdog in a while,” said White, who in his comeback contest last season finished fourth overall and first among Americans. “I’m maybe a little bit behind the curve. But I wouldn’t go as far as, like, underdog.”
The retired Iouri Podladtchikov, the only man to win Olympic halfpipe gold over White (in 2014), learned about the Saas-Fee triple corks from a fellow rider.
“It was only a question of time, I guess, until somebody figured it out,” said the Russian-born Swiss known as I-Pod. “The weird thing is that it always happens just before the Olympic Games, like something really exciting to watch seems to be sort of on the horizon every single time.”
Olympic halfpipes have evolved over time, from 11 1/2-foot walls in the event’s 1998 debut to around 16 feet in 2002, 18 feet in 2006 and 22 feet ever since.
As have the flips and spins. White’s winning run at his first Olympics in 2006 was highlighted by back-to-back 1080s.
In the year before the 2010 Olympics, several riders started throwing double corks -- two diagonal flips. Most notably White, who won gold in Vancouver with back-to-back double corks on his first run and his signature move, the Double McTwist 1260 (two flips and three and a half spins), as a second-run finisher.
Triples – in the interim – weren’t unheard of, but remained rare: China’s Zhang Yiwei, a two-time Olympian who said he grew up idolizing White, landed one (barely) in practice in 2015. Zhang last competed in December 2019.
As athletes focused on other tricks, the triple was certainly not a standard. Until now.
What Thomas saw in Saas-Fee reminded him of the double cork proliferation of 2009-10 that he called a “quantum leap” for the sport.
“Ten years later, here we go again,” Thomas said. “But this is even gnarlier.”
Around the time White shelved the triple cork in 2013, Podladtchikov became the first man to land what he called the YOLO Flip, a cab double cork 1440. Podladtchikov also tried to learn the triple cork. He never got to the point to shift from the soft air bag to the hard snow.
“The triple cork had an extra 20 to 30 percent of difficulty and risk,” than the YOLO, Podladtchikov said. “Shaun has had double corks where you just think, god, he is spinning so slow. If he would just speed it up a little, he could easily, with so much air time, just add another flip. But, you know, easier said than done.”
By 2018, Hirano debuted the first back-to-back double cork 1440s at the X Games, two weeks before the Olympics. White tried the combination for the first time in his life in the Olympic final, landed it and won, arguably in an upset.
“The comeback of that was just so fulfilling,” said White, who four months before PyeongChang, faceplanted on a 1440 and needed 62 stitches across his forehead, lips and tongue. “After my performance in Korea, I just feel like everything’s this awesome bonus situation.”
It’s uncertain whether we’ll see a triple cork at the Beijing Olympics. That will be dependent on the conditions -- the weather, and also the state of the halfpipe. Thomas hasn’t seen it in person. Many riders will see it for the first time at the Winter Games.
“The collective thing I’ve heard is that it’s really similar to the last Olympic halfpipe, which was great,” Thomas said. “But there’s elements there. The snow’s dry. The wind blows really hard.”
A run with a triple cork isn’t guaranteed to beat a run without one. One trick doesn’t win a gold medal. Five or six do.
“Obviously, you’re going to need triples to do well this Olympics,” White said. “But it’s not enough to do that. What’s the combination going to be? And how am I going to do it bigger and better than the others? You know, how do I make it different?
“It’s a lot easier to run to the finish line when you can see it. And now you can see it.”
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