Extreme sports like snowboard halfpipe have a common denominator: failure is not only always in the air, and often inevitable — it is acceptable. It is part of the culture. To fall is natural. Screw-ups and big crashes prompt cheers, not boos. Tricks are practiced — and botched — hundreds of times before they are mastered. And even after they are mastered, they are botched again.
On Friday morning in Zhangjiakou, China, the greatest snowboarder in the history of the halfpipe took his final three runs down a 623-foot curvature with 22-foot-high walls and 68 feet of air between the manmade barriers.
His final run was incomplete. Shaun White fell in the last go of his career. There is no medal this time. But there is a lot to reflect on after what was nearly the most controversial judging decision at a Winter Olympics in a long time. (More on that shortly.)
After rallying to win a gold in halfpipe at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, White vacillated for years on whether he’d make one more run at glory. Snowboarding doesn’t have the culture of swimming or track or many other Olympic disciplines that endear themselves to all-time greats pushing themselves to all-time feats into the winters of their careers. Snowboarding is a thrill … but it’s also chill. Competition in this sport usually doesn’t breed contemptuous rivalries.
White was sometimes exception to that, especially earlier in his life when he approached snowboarding as a more singular pursuit, sometimes alienating himself from his contemporaries. As White got older, as he matured but also faced controversy (there was the sexual harassment allegation from a former bandmate that was settled out of court in 2016), he became more than an ambassador for the sport he singlehandedly popularized.
It would have been storybook for him to conjure up something physically unthinkable for a man his age and steal gold. But that didn’t happen. It would have been appropriate for White to make the podium — silver or bronze — but he came up just short there, too.
Of the final trio of runs to close an incredible career, it was White’s second that was his best. He smoothly unspooled a frontside 1440 before breaking into a double 1080. That segued to the easiest of his five tricks, a frontside 540, before the penultimate highlight: the Double McTwist 1260. That’s the move White popularized, the stunt snowboarders will still be doing in competitions decades from now. He wrapped his five-trick routine with a frontside 1260 and cleanly pulled it off. He’s still among the five greatest in the world at this.
But he needed to be in the top three to earn a fourth Olympic medal. After his second run his 85.00 had him in second place overall. But by the end of the second rotation of competitors, it was short of making the podium. White’s final push down the pipe ended with a literal thud, as he needed 82.25 or better for a chance at bronze. He hit the wall after going for a 1440, his board heavily catching the edge and leading to a wipeout.
But White went down went down going for it all. Sometimes you wipe out. That’s the sport. Snowboarding rewards the lunatics who push the boundaries of gravity. How these humans can thrust themselves ever higher and faster up a 22-foot frozen wall is a mystery to me.
As White unlocked his boots from his bindings, cameras trained into his last moments on the mountain, he caught himself getting emotional. His fellow competitors gave him a standing ovation. A happy ending, even if it wasn’t satisfactory.
White’s final event, this halfpipe championship, was almost doused in controversy. Gold went to Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, whose 96.00 on the final run of the event put him to the top of the podium and past Australia’s Scotty James (92.50). It should have never gotten to that point, though. For all of James’ incredible ability, this is now Hirano’s sport. At 23, he is poised to soar over everyone else for a half-decade, minimally, if he so chooses. Following a brilliant second run, the judges collectively gave him a stunningly low 91.75.
“Uh, is there a mistake?” NBC commentator Todd Harris said. “There’s no way. There’s no way! A 91.75?”
Harris had more to say, his comments immediately going viral. It’s rare for a commentator to so directly criticize the integrity of an Olympic judging panel. At this point, it was warranted. Even to the casual sports fan, Hirano’s ability on the pipe was undeniable. He looks different than everyone else doing it.
“As far as I’m concerned, the judges just grenaded all their credibility,” Harris said. “I know when I’ve seen the best run that’s ever been done in the halfpipe. Try to tell me where you’re deducting from this run. It’s unbelievable that this is even happening. It’s a travesty, to be completely honest with you. I am irate right now.”
Hirano was forced to try the most difficult move in halfpipe — the triple cork, which only he has pulled off in competition — three times. All three times he landed it perfectly. Hirano’s exceptional performance also included a 1440, a frontside 1260 into a backside 1260, then finally a frontside 1440.
There was no disputing it. This is Hirano’s time. Snowboard halfpipe is his. It’s the third Olympic medal of Hirano’s career; he won silver medals at 15 and 19.
“That was the most difficult halfpipe run in the history of halfpipe that has ever been done,” Harris said.
Hirano the gold, James the silver, Jan Scherrer from Switzerland took bronze.
White retires with three Olympic gold medals in five Games, plus 13 more X Games championships. He leaves the sport with a legacy as not just the greatest, but the first. He brought half-pipe snowboarding into the mainstream and in effect drove it to become not just an Olympic sport, but among the most popular of the Winter Games.
White has been paid to snowboard — or, more accurately, thrust and twist and contort and flip and bend his body dozens of feet into the air — for 22 years. He won gold in 2006 at Torino at the age of 19. Then another top-of-the-podium finish at the absolute prime of his career in 2010, the Vancouver Games. Four years later came the shock of the Sochi disappointment, when he failed to medal. And in 2018, the return in Pyeongchang to win gold.
That was the return.
This was the send-off.
A lot can happen when you’re 40 feet in the air. White managed to hang around longer than anyone we’ve ever seen, and maybe ever will. No matter how spectacular it gets up there, everyone eventually has to come back down to earth. White leaves snowboarding in a bigger place than he found it, with a generation of new athletes set to redefine the boundaries of what is possible.