In January, an hourlong documentary aired on NBC that provided a behind-the-scenes look at Shaun White's preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games.
White is notoriously locked down during training -- this is the guy who, during the last Olympic cycle, repaired to a remote corner of southwest Colorado, where he commuted by helicopter to a private halfpipe -- but this crew was given unprecedented access. We see White lapping a private halfpipe, attempting to learn new tricks into an air bag before bringing them to snow. We see White rehabbing sore muscles with nighttime dips into Lake Tahoe, fulfilling media obligations, jamming with his new band at Lollapalooza, heading to Australia for off-season training at another private pipe.
The image that emerges is decidedly un-White-like.
That's because the focus of the documentary is White's attempt to land snowboarding's latest unicorn: a triple cork in the halfpipe. And it becomes increasingly obvious as the hour slogs on that he ... just ... can't ... do it. Attempt after attempt results in awkward air bag landings, aborted takeoffs, screaming fits and even a hard-to-watch moment when he appears to cry on the shoulder of his coach, Bud Keene. There's a sense that the producers -- Emmett and Brendan Malloy among them -- are using this footage to illustrate White's dogged determination, but the picture they paint is actually one of a frustrated superstar throwing tantrums. This is the most dominant snowboarder alive today?
Actually, about that ...
White has reached the last exit on his Road To Sochi, and it looks nothing like the one he traveled to reach Vancouver four years ago. That journey took him along a path that was practically paved over his closest competitors. White entered five halfpipe events leading up the Olympics and won four of them. The only blemish was a second-place finish to Danny Davis at the third of four Olympic qualifiers in Mammoth, but any talk of a Davis/White rivalry for the gold medal was squashed when Davis broke his back and pelvis in a late-night ATV accident a few weeks before the Games.
That wasn't the only rivalry at the time. Kevin Pearce was the only other rider with a win against White in recent history (at the Burton European Open in January 2009), but he suffered a traumatic brain injury while practicing a double cork in the Park City, Utah, pipe on New Year's Eve 2009.
It was White's unleashing of a double cork 1080 (hence his holing up in southwestern Colorado the spring prior to Vancouver) that set off a double cork arms race among his peers. The trick raised legitimate questions about how riders could safely master a trick that suddenly seemed like a prerequisite for Olympic gold. USA Today's Christine Brennan went so far as to insist the trick was too dangerous to be allowed in the Olympics.
White managed to float quietly above this fray, in part because he seemed so untouchable in competition. As his competitors struggled to keep up, no one ever suggested that he take the double off the table. To the contrary, White showed up at X Games before Vancouver, shrugged off a terrifying crash in practice and landed another new trick -- a double McTwist 1260 -- to win. Two weeks later, after beating the Olympic field on the first of two runs with back-to-back double cork 1080s, White punctuated his victory lap with the McTwist 1260 ... you know, just because he could.
Fast-forward four years and things couldn't be more different. At the first Olympic halfpipe qualifier of the year, the Dew Tour at Breckenridge in December, White suffered his first halfpipe loss since losing to Davis four years ago. This time, it was at the hands of 23-year-old Greg Bretz, and the way White lost was as notable as the loss itself: After crashing on the first of two runs, White nearly blew the second run on his very first hit -- a simple, albeit huge, backside air -- when he landed too far down the transition. He held it together but lost enough speed that his amplitude suffered and he couldn't muster the score to take down Bretz.
White didn't storm back from Breckenridge, either. He was a no-show at the next two qualifiers, during which time Davis emerged as a legitimate medal contender. White put on a strong performance with a win in the fourth qualifier, but his victory in qualifier No. 5 saw Davis nipping at his heels, just 1.6 points back in second place. White chose not to compete at X Games a few weeks later, for the first time in his entire career, leaving the door wide open for Davis, who earned his first X Games pipe victory and a head of steam going into Sochi.
Some of White's apparent vulnerability in pipe can be accounted for in his dogged, simultaneous pursuit of an Olympic slopestyle berth. He squeaked into the team's final slot, making him the only snowboarder to represent the U.S. in both disciplines, but it came at a steep price: a shoulder injury on top of an ankle injury he sustained during his loss to Bretz. White pulled himself out of the Sochi slopestyle event Wednesday, citing a high risk for injury and wanting to focus solely on halfpipe. When explaining his decision to pull out of X Games to ESPN, White cited "... how much work it's been to qualify for the Olympics."
Meanwhile, White can still claim the hardest halfpipe tricks in the book -- a double cork 1440, done both switch and regular -- but he can't claim to be the originator. That honor goes to Switzerland's Iouri Podladtchikov, or I-Pod, who is a third legitimate contender for halfpipe gold in Sochi. I-Pod landed the switch double cork 1440 at X Games Tignes in March, and promptly named it the "YOLO."
All of which brings us back to the triple cork. Considering the forces aligned against him heading into the Olympics, plus a new wrist injury sustained in slopestyle practice Tuesday, it looks increasingly likely that White won't have the luxury of casually tossing the trick to wow the crowd on a victory lap. Rather, it might be the only thing that assures him an unprecedented Olympic three-peat. Of course, that assumes he even has the trick in the bag.
Based on what's revealed in the NBC documentary, that seems like a less-than-safe assumption. Nearly half of the show is devoted to White's not making the trick and casting an unflinching eye on how messed up his confidence is as a result.
"I've never been in such a funk where I couldn't snap out of it. I don't know this person who's not motivated to go land these tricks," he says to the camera at one point.
"I've just got this weird block, man, I can't describe it," he says to a member of his crew at another point. "I just talk in my interviews about the dangers and this and that. I'm just intimidated."
In fact, the whole thing seems so focused on White's being unable to land a triple cork that it starts to feel manipulative, like we're being set up for something dramatic to happen in Sochi. The final sequence of the documentary shows White sitting for an interview, where he's asked, "Are you going to throw the triple?"
"I don't know," he responds, and there's a cut to White rocketing into the sky above a halfpipe. "If you made me do it, I'd probably stick it."
That last bit comes over a shot of White making it two and a half times around before it cuts to the credits. It's a hell of a cliffhanger ending, one designed to make everyone wonder whether or not he's already landed the triple cork. But the even better bit of gamesmanship comes after the credits begin to roll. There, listed as the documentary's executive producer, is the name "Shaun White."
The last time White had a unicorn in his bag of tricks, he tipped his hand early because he could. Injury-free and riding at a level no one in the Olympic field could touch, it was more important to lock in his best run than to play possum with what tricks he could or couldn't do.
With legitimate competitors on all sides, far less momentum and several nagging injuries, White isn't dominating the field the way he was four years ago. But he is on national television, crafting a slick piece of Shaun White propaganda, which effectively raises the question about what he's bringing to Sochi. If you're Davis, Bretz or I-Pod, do you feel confident in your halfpipe run knowing that White might have a triple cork?
After all, White's had a rough couple of months, but the eight years leading up to them went pretty smoothly. If nothing else, now White and the triple cork have to be in his competitors' heads. And that's probably right where he wants them.