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.
White won the third Olympic gold medal of his career, clinching his most rewarding prize with a final run of extreme daring, towering athleticism and supreme clutch. He placed himself among America's greatest winter Olympians and defeated a loaded field by making the final run of the contest the best run, not only of the contest, but perhaps in the history of the sport.
"I knew I did it," White said. "I knew I put it down."
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. So, before his third and final run, White decided he had to execute a run he never had before in competition.
White stood on the top of pipe trailing Hirano, who had posted a 95.25 in his second run, then fallen in his third. White was the last man on the mountain. When the announcer bellowed his name, the crowd below erupted.
"I just saw him fist-pumping, and I felt it, too," USA Coach J.J. Thomas said. "He needs this energy. This is his stage. He's a performer, and this is his stage."
He adjusted his goggles and dropped in. 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. White tried to stare at the judge's trailer. 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 hell-raiser when America first fell for him, had been reduced to tears.
"It was like, oh my gosh," his father Roger White said. "It's almost like he's not even believing it."
White posed for pictures at the bottom of the track, stretching an American flag across his back. He walked past red-white-and-blue clad supporters, imploring them to cheer with his arms. "You're an animal!" one of them shouted. He found his family and hugged his father.
"I just told him I loved him," Roger said. "He said, 'I love you, too.' We can't believe it."
There was a time when, for White, disbelief and victory had a polar relationship. He entered Sochi as the favorite to defend his two gold medals, to continue his rise as both a halfpipe wizard and a marketable brand. He was the Flying Tomato, the carefree dude who flew the highest and spun the most. Then, Sochi happened.
"Sochi was so crushing because I physically had the tricks," White said. "I emotionally wasn't there."
Really, Sochi just revealed cracks. White had become a target for other snowboarders, maybe out of jealousy and maybe because his success had placed him on a plane above the entire sport. Some believed he specialized in contests and received too much acclaim for never making backcountry films. White stretched himself thin. He stopped having fun.
"He's so much older now," Roger White said. "He went through a really hard time for a while. There was a period when he was younger and at the top for so long. Things were pretty hard for him. There was some unpopularity. It's just been a roller coaster for a while."
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.
The injury provided proper context for White's consecutive 1440s in the final run. Halfpipe snowboarding is pushing against its limits, with pipes rising in height and trick growing more risky. Earlier in the finals, Japan's Yuto Totsuka had to be dragged off in a stretch after landing on the lip, falling 22 feet and landing square on his back. White's gold medal run in Torin, through the prism of today, looks like a halfhearted warm-up.
"The moves are so dangerous now, it's not like you can practice them like you used to," Thomas said. "These moves are different. The consequences are so high. We just had to wait until it was game time."
And when the time came, White delivered. With the gold medal assured, all that remained was sorting out the place the run would take in the sport's annals.
"I think, personally, it's the best run in the history of the sport," Thomas said. "It's the coolest thing I've ever seen."
"Gosh, man, I think that's the best run that's ever going to be done," said Swiss rider Patrick Burgener, who finished fifth. "It's going to be hard to do better."
There was not complete consensus. Hirano, the silver medalist, also threw consecutive 1440s. James, who won bronze, hinted cryptically about a potential glitch in White's run.
"There were some details I was expressing to the judges before the last score," James said. "But that is what it is. Shaun and Hirano both had amazing runs. It could have gone either way."
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.
In the final, White stood atop the pipe for his first run immediately after watching James, the feisty Aussie who wears red mittens in the shape 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.
"He's a psycho," said Ferguson, who took fourth.
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 exploding into a second act.