'I had to fight for it': Shaun White leads trio of Americans into halfpipe final at Beijing Olympics – USA TODAY

ZHANGJIAKOU, China – It wouldn’t be easy. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. Not this season, not these Olympics, Shaun White’s last.
The legendary snowboarder, the one who redefined the sport by making the sky-scraping tricks look effortless, faced one last run to decide his fate. Either his competitive snowboarding career would end earlier than planned, or he’d have one more chance at the last hurrah he’d imagined in the Olympic final.
As he rode laps on the chair and the T-bar between dozens of other qualifying runs at the Beijing Olympics, White thought about the what ifs. What if he slipped? What if his board caught a chunk of snow in the halfpipe? What if this was it?
It wouldn’t be, to White’s great relief. After falling on his first run in qualifying on a trick he created, White nailed his second run at Genting Snow Park on Wednesday to finish fourth and secure a spot in Friday’s final.
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It was, in one competition, an encapsulation of a season that has seen White face setbacks in trying to make his fifth Olympics team even as he’s shown flashes of brilliance that serve as a reminder of the 35-year-old’s dominance in the sport.
“It would have been nice to just cruise in and have a great, easy first run. But I had to fight for it,” White said. “I had to work for it. That’s been this entire season, me just grinding it out, working for it.”
White will be joined in the final by American teammates Taylor Gold and Chase Josey, who finished seventh and 12th, respectively.
As they waited for White’s second run late in qualifying, none doubted he would make it to the final.
“He’s the most clutch guy ever,” Gold said.
At times, he still is.
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White fell late in his first run on a double McTwist 1260, a trick he invented more than a decade ago and has practiced thousands of times. He’d go on to land it in the final run, combining that with a double cork 1260 to lock in his spot. 
“You gotta respect it because it is still a trick that I invented years ago and it’s still relevant today because it’s a very difficult trick,” White said. “I let off the gas. I didn’t give it enough attention. Just a few more inches, I would have had it. There I was sliding on my back thinking about, wow, it’s all going to come down to this last run.”
In many ways, that’s on par for this season.
White easily secured his spot on the team for past Olympics, but this year it came with considerable difficulty.
In the first qualifier in December, he made mistakes on all three runs. At the next qualifier at Dew Tour, a binding broke during his run. Battling a lingering ankle injury, White pulled out of the final at the last qualifier at Mammoth Mountain in early January. White has since confirmed he had COVID over the holidays.
Though still among the top four U.S. riders in the world rankings, White flew to Switzerland for one last chance to show coaches he should be on the team. He finished third at the Laax Open, his first podium since winning gold in Pyeongchang four years ago.
“Every time I go to the Olympics, it’s its own path, its own journey and kind of like who I have to become to get to that place. Sometimes it’s easier than others and sometimes it’s harder,” White said. “This one’s definitely been more challenging.”
Those challenges won’t stop now, though the ones in the final are familiar to White. Just as four years ago, he enters this Olympic final as more of an underdog than a favorite.
Two-time Olympic silver medalist Ayumu Hirano qualified in first and leads an entire Japanese team that is likely to throw the sport’s hardest trick in the final.
The progression that White helped start has led to the triple cork, which is three off-axis flips with varying degrees of rotation. Hirano became the first to land one in December, though neither he nor his teammates who have done it has been able to complete a run with one in it.
Australian Scotty James, who qualified in second, confirmed the rumor that he has one.
White first toyed with the trick before the Sochi Olympics but has never tried it in a competition. He points out that no run with a triple has won a competition yet. He has a run in mind that he wants to do and if he can put it down, he’d have two more runs to tinker. While he didn’t commit to doing the triple, he didn’t take it off the table either.
“That’s the best part about it – we’re not really holding back,” White said. “I’m going to be giving it my all every run and hopefully putting the pressure on the other riders because I drop in before them.”
After the scare of qualifying, it’s a problem White is grateful to have. How to compete with the best riders in an Olympic final is a welcome change after the bumps it took on his road here.
“Riding away on that last hit was so incredible, the relief,” White said. “And now I get my shot.”


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