White Gold Rush / The X Games star lives up to expectations in the halfpipe

Times Staff Writer

Shaun White was admittedly rattled, this being his first Olympics and with so much expected of an athlete who during the last three months has been unbeatable.

He stood atop the U-shaped halfpipe for his first run and could not turn his attention away from the thousands of people watching from the stands, or from the five rings plastered on flags and banners throughout the venue, signifying the magnitude of the day.

“I never really felt that before,” he said later.

Nor had he ever experienced the kind of satisfaction that he did Sunday afternoon, after he’d pulled himself together and met all those expectations -- as has become his custom -- by winning the halfpipe gold medal with a come-from-behind performance that left even his competitors in awe.


Only another U.S. sweep, which was the big story of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, could have added to the warm feeling evident through the flushed cheeks and moist eyes of the 19-year-old from Carlsbad.

The team fell just short in that regard. Danny Kass, 23, repeated his silver-medal performance of 2002, but Mason Aguirre, 18, finished fourth behind Finland’s Markku Koski, with a run that many believed was short-changed by the judges.

But missing another sweep is not the snowboarding story, so far, of these Turin Olympics. It is White, who as a child underwent two surgeries to repair a heart defect; who pursued a dangerous pastime with the support of his family, turned it into a lucrative career and on Sunday, before a worldwide audience, officially stamped himself as the best in the business. He already had swept all five Olympic qualifiers and won the halfpipe competition at the recent Winter X Games.

“For my mom, it means a lot because I had those heart problems,” he said, fighting his emotions. “When I was younger, she could only hold my foot because of those surgeries. Then I had this dangerous career where I’ve been knocked out, broken a foot and had lots of other injuries. My family has supported me all the way.”


Next to White in the interview tent, jokingly accusing him of crying, was Kass, who said White had taken the sport to a level few others may ever achieve.

“He has the amplitude and attitude that really separates him from others,” Kass said.

Bud Keene, coach of the U.S. halfpipe team, said most other top riders “drop into the pipe, they do their tricks, they land their tricks and just drift into the next wall.”

Of White, Keene added, “He’s in control at every second, whether he’s in the air, whether he’s on the wall, or whether he’s in the flat bottom. Everything is happening exactly the way he wants it to happen, and that’s the quality that really shines through in his riding.”


That was not the case during White’s first qualification run. He dropped into the pipe and launched 20 feet above the wall -- nearly 40 feet above the halfpipe bottom -- but botched the landing on his next maneuver, a 900-degree rotation, and received a score of 37.7 out of a possible 50.

“I’m feeling all Olympic-y,” he confessed to one of his Burton snowboards support crew.

That left him seventh, the sole member of the four-man U.S. team not to have finished in the top six to automatically advance to the 12-man final. White was relegated to the second qualifying round, among 38 riders vying for the six remaining spots, getting only one run apiece.

As the last competitor, he watched anxiously as others kept upping the ante. White needed a 37.1 to qualify and pulled off a conservative yet flawlessly smooth run that received a 45.3 -- the top qualifying mark of either bracket.


Then he made his first of two runs during the final: another straight air, a McTwist (back flip with 540-degree spin), a frontside 1080, frontside 900 and backside 900 -- all performed perfectly, earning a score of 46.8.

The general feeling was that the contest was won then, which proved to be the case as the best anyone else could manage was Kass’ 44.

White, as the last competitor, surfed out his victory lap final run to the tune of Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown,” a title that seemed inappropriate given the message White conveyed.

“The whole trip, the guys were telling me this was just another contest,” he said. “But deep down I was nervous and knew it was more. I was glad I got that fall out of the way so I could just go and do what I do.”