In the days leading up to Saturday afternoon's Slopestyle finals, the Mark McMorris vs. Shaun White debate will rage. Who has the best triple cork? Who will land it first? Whose rail riding will launch him into a winning run? But those might be the wrong questions to ask.
As the riding in X Games sports has progressed to an almost incomprehensible level, the riders with the biggest tricks no longer hold the obvious advantage. It's the riders who land them when it counts, who hold it together under the shine of the lights, the weight of expectations and the glare of 2 million viewers who arrive on top. Winning in any individual sport, especially those as mentally demanding as these, is achieved with a very simple formula: Win the mind games, and you win the X Games.
No one is better at doing both than Shaun White.
White's ability to outwit, outlast and outride his competitors is well documented. Yet White doesn't receive nearly the credit he deserves for the first skill in that trilogy. He's the five-time defending X Games SuperPipe gold medalist, owns five X Games gold medals in Slopestyle and is 2-for-2 at the Winter Olympics for a reason: When the pressure's on, he rarely chokes. White is one of the most talented snowboarders the sport has seen. But he is also one of its shrewdest competitors, and his talent for crawling inside the heads of his competitors and melting their minds and crippling their runs has increased right along with his medal count.
"Any great athlete is strategic, and Shaun is one of the greatest," says Keir Dillon, who competed against White in the halfpipe until 2007, and is now an X Games snowboard analyst. "Shaun is great at not showing his hand. That's why he practices when no one's around. That's why he rents his own pipes and foam pits. Whether it's using scare tactics or talking about tricks he has in order to make other riders panic and learn a trick they think they need in order to beat him -- even if they don't -- it's a game of chess. And Shaun is one of the best ever at it."
In the weeks leading up to this year's X Games, no trick garnered as much ink as the triple cork. In an interview two weeks before the Games, White said he was heading to Breckenridge for his final pre-X training, which would include working on the triple. But when a video of a rider who looked very much like White landing a triple cork in the Breckenridge park surfaced a few days later, White's reps would not confirm it was him in the video.
Didn't matter. The video was out. Once the triple was out of the bag, word began to spread around the Slopestyle world that the video was only the tip of the iceberg. White had also learned a triple cork 1620, and a few other tongue twisters in both slope and pipe that he'd have ready by Sochi. Intimidation tactics? Perhaps. But typically, if White is floating rumors of tricks, it's because he knows he can land those tricks on command, and during finals. That in itself is enough to send his competitors' minds spinning off-axis.
Take last winter's X Games SuperPipe final. In the lead-up to the event, several riders hinted at having runs that could potentially beat White's, even though White arrived in Aspen with a new double cork 1260 variation. Matt Ladley planned to become the third rider ever to land a double McTwist 1260. Louie Vito promised a run that included four doubles and more amplitude than he was known for previously.
But the most cocksure athlete was Russian-Swiss rider Iouri Podladtchikov, who told anyone who would listen that he planed to land a trick only he had ever landed before and never in a contest: a switch double McTwist 1260. In a prefinals interview, he said, "I'm claiming it for myself because I want the pressure. If I do the run I want to do, it will be an actual work of art." He reminded people over and over that yes, White "supposedly" had a new trick, as well, "but it isn't switch," he said.
In the riders' area during that contest, the tension was so thick the pipe builders couldn't cut it with a Zaugg. And when it came down to it, out of all the riders making claims, only White landed the run -- and the tricks -- he promised to land. Of the 24 runs taken in the finals, half ended in falls. Meanwhile, White landed the first contest frontside double cork 1260 in a victory lap he didn't even need to win. The judges rewarded him with the first "perfect 100" in X Games history.
"It's hard to describe, but everything kinda goes into this weird mind game," White says.
But does that mean he plays mind games with himself or with his competitors?
"I guess both," he says, and then deftly avoids the "competitors" part of the question. Instead, he focuses on the way in which he tricks his own mind into downplaying the importance of a contest and sets goals for himself.
"I remember winning a contest two times and I had the two trophies on my shelf. I was like, 'It doesn't look aesthetically pleasing. I've gotta have a third,'" White says. "It's a lot easier to win this little trophy than to be the best snowboarder in the world. Bring it down to something obtainable and it's easy."
White knows when to prod the competition, when to praise them and when to hold back entirely. The simple act of having to answer questions -- or more accurately, question after question after question -- about White is enough to frustrate his competitors and mess with their minds. But White is rarely in a position to have to talk about his competition. He hasn't had a real rival since Danny Davis and Kevin Pearce. Davis beat him head-to-head in the halfpipe at the Mammoth Grand Prix in January 2010. That's the last time White lost a halfpipe contest.
Today, he has a potential new rival in Mark McMorris, Torstein Horgmo and the young guns in Slopestyle, including Seb Toutant, Ståle Sandbech and Sage Kostenburg. But he skirts questions easily by simply saying, repeatedly, that he doesn't even know the names of his Slopestyle competitors, so it would be impossible to have an opinion about them. Ask him about McMorris, specifically, and he says he doesn't really know who you're talking about.
But is this a true statement from an athlete who, if he's to be believed, only worries about what he has to do to win and doesn't pay attention to the competition -- or is it a mind game meant to antagonize his competitors?
"That is a complete mind game," McMorris says. "He knows my name. For sure."
Ask other riders this same question and they answer that he doesn't just know the names of his competitors, he knows their tricks, their past runs and likely the best possible run they can put together in the finals.
"I don't care, though," McMorris says. "If I land what I can do, my name shouldn't be a question."
Looks like someone else learned a few mind games of his own.