KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Shaun White was meandering through the media mixed zone early Tuesday afternoon, having just posted the top qualifying time in the Olympic men halfpipe, when a U.S. ski official came over and whispered in his ear.
A couple of young cancer survivors, big fans of his, had made the trip to Russia courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. One was a 10-year-old boy from St. Louis. Someone had asked if they could lift the kid over the fence so he could meet his hero in person.
White, who had two open-heart surgeries before the age of 1, excused himself and leaped over the barrier separating the mixed zone from the spectator area. He reached over the fence and hugged Ben Hughes, who is in recovery from leukemia, and gave him a high-five.
As it turned out, it was White’s last inspiring jump of the day at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.
White had seemed well on his way to a third straight gold medal in his first qualifying run. Then again, Bode Miller looked great in training on the downhill last weekend. When White returned for the night final, he had nothing. He was just another boarder.
He finished fourth. Iouri Podladtchikov, a native Russian competing for the Swiss, won gold with a 94.75 run in the final. Ayuma Hirano, the 15-year-old Japanese sensation, was second and his countryman, Taku Hiraoka, was third.
“Fourth was a gift,” said American Danny Davis, who finished 10th.
Davis’ assessment was harsh, but warranted. White fell twice on his first run. On his second run, with the halfpipe venue buzzing in anticipation of a dramatic finish, he slipped twice and did nothing extraordinary.
It was startling to see the biggest star in extreme sports, the face of the Winter Games, fall on his face in the big moment, when snowboard fans are accustomed to seeing White steal the show.
But this wasn’t the same Shaun White, the dominant athlete who had locked up both of his previous golds before his final run. Over the last two years, he had cut his trademark flowing red hair and ditched the “Flying Tomato” nickname. He lost some of his competitive edge, too.
“I’m disappointed,” White, 27, said. “I hate the fact I nailed it in practice. But it happens. It’s hard to be consistent.”
The shock wasn’t that White failed to become the fourth person to win an individual gold in three straight Games. It was that he finished fourth. As Davis suggested, he probably didn’t deserve that.
No doubt, there are people who will celebrate White’s misfortune. He’s not terribly popular in the snowboard community, some of whom felt he had grown apart from his roots and was too concerned with winning and fame, not true enough to the laid-back “bro” ethos of the sport.
White’s approach to these Games was filled with intrigue. He said he would attempt a difficult double in both halfpipe and slopestyle, which was in the Olympics for the first time. But at the last moment, he dropped out of the slopestyle competition.
He had injured an ankle in December practicing in slopestyle. White said he wanted to concentrate on halfpipe, his specialty. Canadian riders Sebastien Toutant and Max Parrot ridiculed him on Twitter, saying the real reason he dropped out was he knew he couldn’t win.
White was also criticized for costing another U.S. boarder a spot by waiting so long to decide.
It was fair to wonder if White’s reputation had outgrown his talent, and whether he had the will and commitment to win gold. Over the past year or so, he had acted like a fabulously wealthy young man who was moving away from youthful passion and aspiring to new challenges.
White was immersed in various business ventures. He bought his own event called Air+Style. He dedicated himself to playing guitar and toured with his band, Bad Things, which cut an album. He had musical equipment set up in his hotel room during Olympic qualifiers.
There is no crime in that. It’s great that extreme sports stars can now make the kind of money they do in major team sports. White is said to be worth $15 million a year. Maybe some of the resentment among his peers is envy about how handsomely he has cashed in.
White has done a lot of humanitarian work, too. He put much of his energy into the St. Jude Children’s Hospital campaign, which raises money for children’s cancer research. You could see how he came alive when he saw those cancer survivors in the mixed zone.
Katie Lyle also came to Sochi thanks to Make-A-Wish. Four years ago, at 15, she lay in a Florida children’s hospital, receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer. She watched on TV as a snowboarder with long red hair won an Olympic gold medal, and she found a hero.
“Watching him compete, he had such sportsmanship,” Lyle said. “He was so lively, so full of – life! He just really inspired me.”
White inspired a legion of snowboarders, too. Some of them have surpassed him. Podladtchikov (“I-Pod”) created the “Yolo,” which requires 1440 degrees of spin. I-Pod landed a Yolo in the final.
On his first run, White tried a Yolo and fell. He got up and tried a difficult trick, hitting the lip of the pipe and landing hard on his backside – a dubious move considering he’d already blown the run.
White turned in a second run that was ordinary by his standards. When he finished, he gave a long, pleading look up at the judges, trying to buy some support. He got more than he deserved, but it wasn’t enough. He graciously congratulated Podladtchikov when it was over.
He also lingered in the mixed zone afterwards, giving time to virtually every media outlet along the row. White had a look of relief on his face, as if it were his way of saying goodbye to the sport.
“I will go and see my family and reflect,” he said. “I’m planning to go out and play some music.”
Competitively, it was a bad day for American snowboarding, the worst in their Olympic history. For the first time since the sport was added to the Games in 1998, the U.S. didn’t win a medal.
“We let America down,” Davis said. “Sorry, America.”
On this day, maybe so. But for years, Shaun White lifted a sport, and a lot of lucky people went along for the ride.