His place on the Olympic team had been secured weeks earlier, but Shaun White couldn't contain his joy and relief at the bottom of the Park City halfpipe last Friday night. In his first run at the fourth of five Olympic qualifying events on the Grand Prix circuit, the flame-maned reigning Olympic gold medalist had nailed what he would call "the run of my life"—a five-hit string of soaring acrobatics including consecutive double corks, diagonal flips that are this season's money trick and the unveiling of the double McTwist 1260. The last, a double-forward-flipping spin, was proclaimed by the 23-year-old rider "the best trick I've ever done."
The move is also the scariest, most demanding and hardest to master of any he has ever tackled. "I don't think I've crashed as much in the last couple years as I have this season learning it," said White. "I was talking about it in interviews, and I was going to feel like a bit of a sissy if I didn't stick it."
White's stunning run—which he would reprise on Saturday for a record score of 49.50—was the latest jaw-dropper in a season marked by spectacular achievements and horrific mishaps among America's best halfpipe riders. On Dec. 31, 22-year-old Kevin Pearce, one of the few snowboarders who has beaten White, hit his head while practicing a double cork in Park City, suffering what one of his doctors described as "a severe, traumatic brain injury." (Pearce remains in a Salt Lake City hospital, where his condition has since been upgraded from critical to serious.) At the second Olympic qualifier in Mammoth, Calif., on Jan. 6, 21-year-old Danny Davis landed an unprecedented three double corks in a run he dedicated to his friend Pearce. Davis's score of 49.20 set a halfpipe record and shoved White into the unfamiliar territory of runner-up at the event. Based on that run Davis was considered a lock for the Olympic team and a good bet for a medal—until early on the morning of Jan. 17, when an ATV on which he was riding plowed into a gate in Park City. Davis landed in another Salt Lake City hospital, with fractures to his back and pelvis that will keep him out of competition for the rest of the year.
Davis's performance at Mammoth, however, had so unnerved White that, after he won the second of back-to-back qualifiers there, he canceled plans to hang out in L.A. for a few days and flew straight to Park City to improve and expand his double McTwist. White scotched the 1080 version and increased the spin to a 1260. "I have to thank Danny Davis for beating me," said White on Friday. "I needed that extra push."
White—an uncompromising competitor whose combination of talent, work ethic and confidence puts him in the company of such dominant athletes as Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps—had anticipated a competitive run-up to the Olympics and had prepared accordingly. He skipped his usual summer diversion, the pro skateboarding circuit, to train on snow at Mount Hood, Ore., and in New Zealand. He increased the intensity and frequency of his strength and fitness training regimen. And he took full advantage of the private halfpipe that his sponsor Red Bull built for him last winter in Silverton, Colo. He returned to competition with his own versions of a front double cork 1080 and a cab double cork 1080 as well as an original creation, the double McTwist 1080. Heading into the Turin Games four years ago, he never altered his run from August through February and won the gold deploying tricks created by others. This season he not only invented a trick for the first time but also changed his run on several occasions in response to challenges from other riders.
"For the first time Shaun has peers in the game," says White's coach, Bud Keene. "Kevin Pearce beat Shaun a couple of times. Then Louie Vito [the first to land a frontside double cork in competition, last summer] pushed him. Then Danny Davis came on. Now Danny is gone, but his push will never go away."
Among U.S. Olympic teammates who could press White further is the 21-year-old Vito, a Columbus, Ohio, native who broke through this season after warming quickly to the double cork, which plays to his strengths as a former gymnast. Unlike White and Davis, the only other riders who consistently land back-to-back double corks, Vito didn't have access to a private pipe. He turned to USA aerials coach Matt Christensen for help with spotting between flips, and he worked out the kinks on a trampoline at the Center of Excellence in Park City. Like White, he stepped up his strength and fitness regimen.
Mentally, Vito got a huge boost from a turn on Dancing with the Stars last fall. "The way I looked at it, if I can dance—an event in which I have no self-esteem, no confidence, and I'm wearing outfits that you'll never catch me wearing on Halloween while in front of a live audience and 22 million TV viewers—then snowboarding, which I know I'm good at and I'm wearing clothes I like, should be a piece of cake," says Vito, who was eliminated from the show in Week 6 when his jive was beaten by Michael Irvin's samba. "And it has worked out just like that. Snowboarding is now a lot easier."
Scotty Lago, who scored one of the four possible Olympic halfpipe spots (final men's and women's rosters had not been announced at press time) with two surprising second-place finishes last weekend, has also been riding with a greater ease. Up until the last few months, the 22-year-old Seabrook, N.H., native was a stylish, high-amplitude rider who was brilliant in practice but tended to fall in competitions. After spending time with a sports psychologist, Lago has learned to thrive in the spotlight. "This has been a dream of mine," said Lago after clinching his Olympic berth, though he allowed it was bittersweet to get the opportunity in part because two of his best friends were injured. But he was confident of what their reaction would be to his good news: "They'll be stoked."
In the women's halfpipe qualifying, dark horses found no traction. The top three riders from the 2006 team—Gretchen Bleiler, 28; Kelly Clark, 26; and Hannah Teter, 23—are back. Clark, a down-to-earth Vermonter who won the gold in 2002 and just missed joining Teter (gold) and Bleiler (silver) on the podium in Turin after falling on her final run, is again the rider to beat, having won four of the five Grand Prix events this season. "I've had the full Olympic experience, winning the gold and then just missing a medal," says Clark, whose gold is on display at TC's, the restaurant her parents, Terry and Cathy, own in West Dover, Vt. "It makes me want to win again. I feel more prepared and more excited than ever before."