BONGPYEONG, South Korea — The durability of snowboarding, both as an Olympic event and a sport capable of lingering on the edge of the mainstream, can now be validated by its capacity for reinvention. It has been around long enough, and grown embedded enough in cultural consciousness, to facilitate second acts.
Shaun White was 19 and raggedy when he won his first gold medal, 23 and exultant when he won his second, 27 and corporate when he suffered letdown and arrived at a professional fork. Wednesday afternoon on Pyeongchang Halfpipe, White completed his competitive revival at 31 with a reinforcement and a declaration. He remains the unquestioned greatest snowboarder ever, and he is once again the unquestioned greatest snowboarder in the world, now with a magnificent final chapter.
White won the third Olympic gold medal of his career, placing himself among America’s greatest Winter Olympians and defeating a loaded field by making the final run of the contest the best run of the contest. In his earlier Olympic triumphs, White could be assured none of his competitors had the ability to approach his best runs. That wasn’t the case Wednesday, not against 19-year-old Japanese sensation Ayumu Hirano, Australian Scotty James and even countryman Ben Ferguson.
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White stood on the top of the pipe for his third run trailing Hirano, who had posted a 95.25 in his second run, then fallen in his third. He was the last man on the mountain. He adjusted his goggles and dropped in.
White destroyed the run. He hit consecutive 1440s and back-to-back 1260s, one of those with a flair called the Tomahawk. When he crossed the line, White raised both arms in the air.
He watched and waited. Silence replaced mayhem.
The score flashed: 97.75.
White flipped his board in the air, letting it spin just like its owner. He dropped to his knees and dabbed at his face. Shaun White, a goofy hellraiser when America first fell for him, had been reduced to tears.
White took on all comers and beat them, raising the bar in a sport he has owned for a dozen years yet again. White revealed the seriousness of his intent Tuesday in the qualifying round, when he unleashed a 98.5-point masterpiece in his final run, even though his first run had been plenty to push him into the field. Riders typically play it safe in such situations, saving their best tricks for the final, careful to only whet the appetite of the judges. Still, White threw down the best run of the day. “I’m here to put it down,” White proclaimed.
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White bettered himself Wednesday and took the gold medal. His renaissance from earlier this calendar year may have been more remarkable than his rebound from disappointment in Sochi. While training in New Zealand in October, White split his face open attempting a double-flip 1440, a crash that required 62 stitches. He opened the season with an 18th-place finish, then followed it later with an 11th at the Winter X Games, his worst showing since he was 13 years old.
White stood atop the pipe for his first run immediately after watching James, the feisty Aussie who wears red mittens in the shape of boxing gloves, put down the best run of the day to that point, a 92. White responded with a monstrous 94.25, which he punctuated by ripping off his helmet and chucking it into the sky.
Hirano, who posted a 99 in competition earlier this year, took over the top spot with his second run, executing consecutive 1440s en route to a 95.25. So when White stood at the top of the pipe a second time, he was chasing.
White responded with a furious beginning to his run, leading off with a 1440 and then landing another. But then, trying to land one of his trademark moves – the Tomahawk – White fell on his backside. His third run would be no victory lap. It would be only victory, genius in nature, the latest and maybe sweetest triumph of a career.
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