It should come as no surprise that the greatest run in halfpipe snowboarding history was landed by Shaun White. His talent and ability to rise to the occasion long ago elevated him to his own echelon.
"I'm not fanning out on him, I'm not sucking up, it's the fact of the matter: Shaun is a better halfpipe rider than anyone else," says snowboarding legend Eddie Wall.
Yet when White's third and final run at the 2012 X Games -- a victory lap, since he had already won the contest and was the last rider to drop -- was rewarded with the first 100-point, full-run score in X Games history, it simultaneously became a lightning rod for controversy. Most notably, it forced snowboarders and action sports fans to think deeply about what deserves to be called perfect, numerically speaking -- if anything.
In advance of the X Games the following year, I revisited White's perfect score. I spoke with White, his coach, Bud Keene, and most of the judges who determined White's 2012 placing in Aspen. Their commentary reflected the heat they'd taken in the wake of that night, which they understood and defended themselves against. More than anything, though, their commentary reflected the pride they maintained in how the night ended. White and Keene fully believed the run was worthy of the historic score, as anyone would if they had created the run. The judges, well aware that White divides the sport and its fans, and that awarding a 100 would turn themselves into dartboards, did it anyway.
Not all of the comments and context I gathered made it into the story that ran in 2013. But even those that were left out, and are now included below, can help us understand how such a singular moment came to be.
Sitting around a table in Breckenridge, Colorado, nearly a year removed from White's climactic X Games result, I asked head judge Tom Zikas whether it felt good to dole out the first triple-digit score.
"Yeah, it did," he said. "This is something we're passionate about. We feel like we're doing justice to our sport. We've all grown up snowboarding our whole life, and being able to see a run like that and do it justice by giving it a hundred, yeah, it felt good. It felt really good."
This is not to be confused with collusion. The moment White landed his final trick, an unprecedented frontside double cork 1260 that he'd invented just four days prior, so began the discussion in the judging booth. It persisted for about 60 seconds. White's fingertips had skimmed the wall as he landed the last trick, but not enough to alter his balance or keep him upright.
"So maybe that's a 99.9999," Wall said. "Now take that into consideration and consider what happened: he did a frontside double cork 1260 [unprecedented in snowboarding history], back-to-back double cork 1260s [also unprecedented], his average height for every trick was five feet higher than all the other competitors and he'd already won, so this was his victory lap.
"We took those four things into consideration and said, OK, that deserves the extra .00001 that gives him a 100. When I put it that way with [critics], they were like, Oh, that makes sense."
Fellow judge Chad Otterstrom defended the score in his job as a snowboard coach at Woodward at Copper.
"I'd be sitting there working on the trampolines," Otterstrom said, "and I'd hear, 'The judges at X Games suck.' And I'd be like, 'Oh really? I'm a judge. What did we do wrong?' They'd give me the whole Shaun White 100 thing. I understand that they don't understand. People see a hand drag but they don't understand that it was his victory lap and what was really going on. It was magical. Every person in the judging booth was amazed by what he just did."
Keene, who, incidentally, predicted to White before the final run that he would get a 100 if he landed it, compares a halfpipe run to a blues riff. "It speeds up, it slows down, it makes you wait on the edge of your seat, and then he hammers it home," Keene said. "We think about those things when we put runs together."
As for White's decision to up the ante when he didn't have to?
"Shaun could push the sport as far as he wants in pipe, but he's only going to make things harder on himself," Keene said. "So we learn things and hold back a little bit. But he felt like he wanted to do a little something extra at the X Games. So that front double 12, we played around and it came so easy, we were like, all right, we've got that if we want to do it."
"I had never done it in competition," White said of the front double 12, "and I had never done that combo (back-to-back double 12s) in competition. I used the energy from the event to push it over, you know?"
The result was historic, even while begging a question: What did the 100 really mean? Two and a half years later, the answer remains open to interpretation.
"I don't think there ever will be a perfect run in snowboarding," Zikas said. "I don't think Shaun's run was perfect. But I do think it was a hundred."