White falters, Podladtchikov shines
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- The scene could not have been more perfectly set for Shaun White to once again leave the Olympics as the Great American Halfpipe Hero. The last rider to drop during Tuesday night's final, White was the U.S. team's only remaining hope for a medal. Taylor Gold fell in his semifinal runs and failed to make the final. Danny Davis and Greg Bretz fell on both of their finals runs and White crashed twice in his first run of finals. It had been 16 years since a non-American rider won the Olympics and eight since that rider was not named Shaun White.
The Olympic reputation of the U.S. halfpipe team was riding on White's final run. It's the kind of moment in which he thrives, the type that turns regular contest runs into the stuff of last-night talk show fodder and Oprah's favorite things.
But in the end, it was Iouri Podladtchikov of Switzerland who provided the contest with its storybook ending. "We're in Russia. I wanted this. I worked for this," said Podladtchikov, who was born in Moscow, raised in Davos and competed for Russia at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. "I knew I needed to pull out all my tricks. When I landed the backside double [cork], I was like, 'You're not going to fall on the YOLO flip. It's not going to happen. It's all there for you.' That YOLO flip felt so good."
The "YOLO," or switch frontside double cork 1440, is a trick Podladtchikov invented and first landed in competition at X Games Tignes last March. He hadn't landed it since, leading some folks in the snowboard industry to jokingly say YOLO must stand for "You Only Land Once." Meanwhile White has not only learned the trick, he learned how to do it both ways -- switch and regular. Podladtchikov landing the YOLO in the clutch final run of the halfpipe finals effectively meant that in order to win, White would have to throw and land one, too.
In the end, White ended up throwing the same run twice. It was not the run he planned to throw to win the Olympics. It didn't include back-to-back double cork 14s or a triple cork, but he figured that if he landed it big and clean, it would be enough to win. "And I came here to win," White said.
But he landed low on his first hit, wobbled the landing on his YOLO flip and buckled on his final hit. The whole run fell flat and looked decisively un-Shaun-White-like. Even when he threw his arms up in celebration, it was clear even White didn't believe he'd done enough to win.
"Wow. Shaun just didn't win the Olympics," teammate Danny Davis said while waiting for White's score to post. "I wonder what they'll give him."
Fourth place. It's a spot White's never been in before. He had never not won an Olympics in which he competed and the last time he finished fourth in a major halfpipe competition was at the 2005 X Games. On the flip side, Podladtchikov had never medaled at the Olympics and despite his best efforts, has never won the X Games.
"This year, I felt so close to winning [the X Games]. It was mine," Podladtchikov said. "And I didn't win. Shaun won the last six years I was there, in a row. This year, it was like, I'm there and he's not, and I'm trying something and I've almost got it, but he's not there. This time, he was here and he didn't win. But I felt OK with winning because I was also the guy going for it."
Few riders would win the Olympics and contemplate whether they "feel OK," about doing so. But winning means more to both riders when they do so by pushing and progressing the sport and riding on the edge of what's possible. White is much to credit for Podladtchikov standing atop the Olympic podium in Sochi. The two riders are friends, they're two of the most progressive riders in the sport, and they feed off of one another.
"Iouri deserves a big win like this. He's been pushing hard," White said. "It's nice to see someone else that's out there stepping it up and doing new tricks and pushing the envelope of what's possible in a halfpipe."
White does not hand out praise lightly. When asked in the same post-contest news conference about 15-year-old silver medalist Ayumu Hirano of Japan, White called him "a great rider" and then told a story about himself at age 15.
But White respects Podladtchikov as much as I-Pod looks up to White. The first time they met, at an Air & Style contest in Japan, I-Pod asked White for his autograph. They are each full-blown celebrities in their respective countries, they're both fantastic vert skateboarders and they share a love for music. And quite simply, they're some of the only people in the world who truly understand what it's like to be the other.
"Shaun and me are good friends and I don't like seeing him fall," I-Pod said. "I want to see him do his stuff. He's going for it. Everyone else is like, 'I'm going to go bigger or cleaner and that's going to do it.' Thank god it didn't do it tonight. Me and Shaun are always thinking of pushing the next trick."
In 2010, White landed the sport's first double McTwist 1260. So Podladtchikov started working on the same trick -- switch. In 2013, Podladtchikov landed the first Cab double cork 1440 and named it the YOLO flip. So White not only learned that trick, he added a frontside version and began working on a halfpipe triple cork. When I-Pod steps up, White answers. When White sees I-Pod land a trick he hasn't yet mastered, he disappears into training until he can.
Podladtchikov fell twice attempting the YOLO at January's Winter X Games, and then took his moment in front of the ESPN TV camera to call out to White, whom he'd seen landing the YOLO in videos, and doing it better.
"I know you're watching, Shaun," he said, pointing his finger into the lens. "I've seen you doing my trick. But at the Olympics, we're in my town. Those are my people."
The comments were said mostly in jest, but they were also a way to generate a much-needed dose of external motivation and hold himself accountable come Sochi. He'd just challenged the greatest halfpipe rider of all time to a duel in the country in which he was born. And then, on contest day, he struggled.
After two days of canceled and shortened practice sessions in a less-than-Olympic halfpipe, Podladtchikov rode terribly in practice and in his first run of qualifiers, falling on a Crippler.
"In four years, I've never fallen on a Crippler going from left to right," he said. "I was like, 'Damn. I have to wait another four years now?' I felt that low. Then I landed my next run and from that point on, I was like, 'Anything is possible.' I could feel people grinding their teeth. The cheers really woke me up. I could hear single people yell my name when I was dropping in. I was feeling really confident on the [right] wall, where I do the YOLO and my backside double cork, the two hardest tricks in mine and Shaun's runs. I can't tell you. There was so much exciting riding today. I can't wait to watch the replay."
And snowboard fans can't wait for the rematch.