BONGPYEONG, South Korea ¡ª By the time it was Shaun White¡¯s turn to enter the halfpipe, 28 other riders had wrapped up both qualification runs, and he had nothing to prove, really. There was no medal on the line in Tuesday¡¯s qualification round, and his spot in the finals was secured by his impressive initial spin through the pipe.
But he couldn¡¯t help himself. The others had gone so big, and he¡¯d been waiting four years to erase and replace that painful memory from the 2014 Olympics.
¡°I knew I had it in me, and I watched these guys put in these amazing runs and it fired me up,¡± he said. ¡°I just wanted to show, this is what I¡¯ve been doing my entire life and I¡¯m here to put it down.¡±
White put on a dazzling, dizzying show that erased any doubts about which snowboarder is competing with a target on his back. After all these years, it¡¯s still White, competing in his fourth Winter Games. His score of 98.50 threw the crowd at the Phoenix Snow Park into a frenzy and put the other riders on notice that, even though they haven¡¯t seen much of White these past few years, he looks more like the guy who won Olympic gold in 2006 and ¡¯10, not the one who was a disappointing fourth in Sochi.
White, 31, was the last rider in the pipe Tuesday and had the benefit of seeing just how competitive this year¡¯s field is. All of the riders ¡ª particularly the top five qualifiers ¡ª set a high bar on the opening day of competition, and they know there¡¯s only thing left to do: Fly high over it Wednesday, flipping and spinning as many times as possible.
¡°Everybody¡¯s shredding,¡± said Jake Pates, one of four U.S. riders to make the 12-man finals. ¡°The Olympics is a big deal, so I think everybody just wants to send their hardest stuff and go as big as they can. It¡¯s always crazy to see what goes down.¡±
The halfpipe qualifying had a surprising amount of one-upmanship. Japan¡¯s Ayumu Hirano topped White¡¯s first run of 93.25 by posting a 95.25. Australia¡¯s Scotty James quickly bested it with a 96.75. Both felt like haughty marks until White dropped into the pipe.
¡°Dude¡¯s always going big,¡± American rider Ben Ferguson said. ¡°It¡¯s kind of what you expect almost.¡±
The strategy in qualifying is usually simple: Put together a run that¡¯s good enough to punch a ticket into the finals. Riders keep the bar low enough so they can easily top it the next day, setting a baseline of sorts for themselves and the judges.
¡°Most of the field saves a bunch of tricks for finals, just kind of tries to get one down in qualities,¡± Pates said. ¡°But today a bunch of people put down really good runs in the first run.¡±
Each succeeding rider took note. Certainly White did. But before it was his turn, he saw one of the most talented Olympic fields give a small preview of what the medal round will hold. Hirano, who took silver four years ago, even pulled out back-to-back double cork 1440s, a move that could differentiate him from the field ¡ª unless White tries to match it.
¡°I think it¡¯s to be expected,¡± James said of the opening day¡¯s big runs. ¡°The Olympics, this is where the level of riding is going to be really high.¡±
James will help show just how high. He¡¯ll almost surely attempt a switch backside double cork 1260 ¡ª three-and-a-half rotations with a blind entry and landing. He¡¯s the only rider who can land the technically difficult trick, and it could be the difference between the podium and disappointment.
The opening-day degree of difficulty surprised some riders. They¡¯ve been through some qualifying events with nearly twice as many competitors, all battling for a prized spot in the finals.
¡°It was actually sort of an easier qualifying ¡ª [that¡¯s what] we were thinking,¡± said American Chase Josey, who posted an 83.75, the seventh-highest qualifying score. ¡°Then everybody was absolutely shredding. So it really wasn¡¯t easy by any means.¡±
A lot of riders didn¡¯t know what to make of the early runs, particularly the first-timers to the sport¡¯s biggest stages. Pates and Josey fell on their initial runs. Ferguson posted the day¡¯s fourth-highest score ¡ª 91.00 ¡ª but said it wasn¡¯t as easy as he made it look.
¡°A lot more nerves flying around up there,¡± he said. ¡°This is a big ol¡¯ show. Dudes are definitely a little stressed out and definitely want to put down runs.¡±
He doesn¡¯t think that will be an issue Wednesday (8:30 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday). No rider can afford to keep anything in his back pocket. ¡°Just got to go higher, be smoother and put a little extra sauce on there,¡± Ferguson said.
If they can¡¯t, as White learned in Sochi, the bad taste will linger.
¡°I feel night and day ¡ª physically and mentally ¡ª from Sochi,¡± White said following Tuesday¡¯s runs. ¡°And I think there was a little bit of that shining through today.¡±
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