You can’t win a halfpipe medal in the qualification round. You can’t lose one, though.
There are only two runs – one less than in the final – and a field of 29 riders to chew up the pipe’s walls, this after the women’s finalists dug into them a few hours earlier. It becomes a test of nerves, in some ways, more than a validation of talent.
In Shaun White’s case, it was both.
The 31-year-old from Carlsbad ripped off a 93.25-point opening run at Phoenix Snow Park, watched his two main rivals momentarily pass him on their second run, then fired back with a 98.50 that put him in first place entering the 12-man final Tuesday night (San Diego time).
The message as clear as the blue skies above: Take that.
“For me, I knew I had it in me,” said White, who won gold in 2006 and 2010 before slipping to fourth in Sochi four years ago. “I saw these young guys put down these amazing runs, and it fired me up. I just wanted to show this is what I’ve been doing my entire life and I’m here to put it down.
“I would have loved to have skated into the finals on my 93 but everybody started putting it down. I’m like, ‘OK, if we’re going there, we’re going there.’”
The reward is the advantageous last starting position in the final, where you know what everyone else has done.
“I get my favorite slot, dropping last,” White said. “That was big for me, it’s really a good luck spot. I’m happy to have it.”
Top-ranked Scotty James of Australia was second at 96.75, followed by No. 3 Ayumu Hirano of Japan (95.25). Fellow American Ben Ferguson (91) and Japan’s Raibu Katayama (90.75) were the only others to break 90.
Seamus O’Connor, who grew up in San Diego and competes for Ireland, was in 13th place – one spot out of the final – after scoring 65.5 on his first run. He had a good second run going until slipping near the bottom of the pipe and dropped to 18th place.
It was a good sign for White, as much for landing a clean run as for the judges’ opinion of it.
White, James and Hirano offer contrasting styles, and if they’re all at their best – which recent form suggests – it leaves the judges with a subjective decision. White gets the most amplitude (or height above the lip); James has the most technical trick with a switch backside 1260; and Hirano last month became the first man to land back-to-back 1440s (four revolutions).
What’s your pleasure: air, difficulty or spins?
James, who had complained in recent weeks about getting “shafted” by White-favored judges, made no such claims after the qualification rounds.
“I assumed Shaun would answer back like that,” he said. “That’s competition.”
Conditions were better than a day earlier, when the women’s snowboard slopestyle final was held in blustery – and some insisted, dangerous – weather. But the windless morning that the women had for their final gradually deteriorated, and several times riders paused at the top of the pipe to wait out squalls that kicked up snow.
“Oddly enough, I was a little nervous,” White said. “There’s such a buildup to get to the Olympics, people forget you’ve still have to qualify for the finals. I was stoked to put that (first) run down. That took the pressure and the edge off. Then I started seeing people putting down these great runs, and I figured I would just kind of step it up.
“I feel night and day (better), physically and mentally, from Sochi. And there was a little of that shining throw.”
So he’s the favorite?
“These are my fourth Olympics,” White said. “I’ve never really felt like an underdog since I was a little kid.”