[Shaun White gets quizzed by the media after qualifying. Photo: Tristan Kennedy]
“There’s a café in town here that does a burger named after me," said the world’s most famous snowboarder, joking with journalists after today’s halfpipe qualifiers. “I don't know if you guys have checked it out? It's pretty good…"
Shaun White, who'd just posted the highest score in qualifying and won the right to drop last in tomorrow’s Olympic halfpipe final, was looking relaxed and confident. Or at least, that’s the impression he was trying to give off. “I get my favourite spot, dropping last. That was big for me, really a good luck spot," he said. “I wanted it." Getting it, however hadn’t been totally plain sailing.
“I wanted to show that this is what I've been doing my entire life, and I'm here to put it down".
“Oddly enough I was a little nervous [on my first run]," Shaun explained. “You know there's such a build up to get to the Olympics and then you've still got to qualify for the finals. So I was stoked to put that run down that took the pressure and the edge off."
It wasn’t long however before a fly appeared in the ointment, in the form of diminutive Japanese rider Ayumu Hirano. The 19-year-old had been on cruise control on his first run, but now decided to step it up a gear, throwing back-to-back double cork 10s plus a 1260, and beating Shaun’s first run score with a tally of 95.25.
Shortly afterwards Australian Scotty James, who’s also been challenging Shaun’s dominance in competitions of late, went one better cranking out back-to-back 1260s at the top of his run to post a 96.75.
Shaun wasn’t having that at all. “I watched these young guys go put in these amazing runs and it fired me up." he said. “I wanted to show that this is what I've been doing my entire life, and I'm here to put it down."
"I was like ‘those guys are throwing hammers. Well, I can throw hammers.’"
The run was a pure statement of intent: Shaun White has not made it all the way to the games again to come away with another disappointing result. “I feel night and day, physically and mentally from Sochi," he said. “And I think that was a little bit of that today".
Shaun dropped in and threw down a run that included back-to-back double cork 10s and back to back 12s. When the score of 98.5 came in it was clear Shaun had won the game of one-upmanship was firmly back in the driving seat. Dropping last isn’t just lucky, it conveys a significant tactical advantage. You get to see what tricks your opponents have done, and what scores they’ve posted, before your run.
Despite this strong hand however, Shaun still goes into his fourth Olympic final tomorrow in an unusually uncertain position. Ayumu Hirano recently put down back-to-back 1440s at the X Games, a combo that Shuan was said to be trying to learn in the run-up to Pyeongchang in order to keep up. “I've never really felt like an underdog since I was a little kid," he said, but this time it’s not entirely clear who’s the favourite.
Ayumu didn’t try the combo today, but he surely will if pushed tomorrow. And might he have something on top of that?
“'Both of them are going to have the 14s in their runs, and I like to think I've got something different to give when the time comes,' said Scotty James"
Scotty James was also playing his cards close to his chest. “I think everyone's still leaving a bit in the tank," he said after today’s qualifier, but replied “no comment" when asked what exactly he meant.
He believes he knows what Shaun and Ayumu are planning though. The Japanese rider’s X Games run “gave us a little insight into what he’s going to be doing here," Scotty said, “and I know Shaun kind of has the same plan."
“Both of them are going to have the 14s in their runs, and I like to think I've got something different to give when the time comes." Scotty famously wears boxing gloves. Was this a genuine threat, or a just a feint to keep his opponents on their toes?
Shaun’s answers, by contrast, were surprisingly straightforward. When asked if he was going to try 1440s he said: “Oh yeah, yeah. That's definitely the plan. It's just how high do we want to do 'em?"
“We've all got these like similar runs going I think," he said. But then he winked. “Or maybe you know there [are] some hidden things…" He laughed.
“No, but uhm you know going big, going clean and just putting it down solid is what these guys [the judges] want to see [based on] my score today. So I'm planning on doing that tomorrow."
Whether or not he, Scotty or Ayumu are bluffing, we’ll find out tomorrow. Either way, it’s shaping up to be one hell of a contest. We can't wait.