So ... now what? It's no secret that the Shaun White Not-A-Fan Club grew by more than a few members during the unrelenting media blitz of the current Olympic cycle, but even the most ardent of those unenamored with White's halfpipe dominance couldn't have foreseen this: A first-run crash followed by a second run riddled with errors followed by a finish in that murky abyss just the other side of the bronze medal podium step. At just about every other event in sports, second is the first loser; at the Olympics, fourth place is where dreams go to die.
And White had dreams -- big ones. A three-peat at Sochi would have filled the gas tank on the Shaun White Enterprises Crossover Pop Culture Superstar Machine for at least another four years. When the honorific preceding your first name is "three-time and reigning Olympic champion," it gives you the keys to doors that Sage Kotsenberg, bless his heart, might get to knock on once in the next 60 days.
The "three-time and reigning Olympic champion" gets to swing by Letterman whenever he's in NYC; he gets to host "Saturday Night Live," gets chased around Los Angeles by paparazzi, and probably gets asked on stage to jam with Dave Grohl on the next Foo Fighters tour.
Just as important to White, a win in Sochi would have made him an Olympic legend as the first male winter sports athlete from the U.S. to three-peat the same event. That's pantheon-level athletic success and a benchmark that Bob Costas can understand when he's comparing the next three generations of Winter Olympians to White's success. Pity Iouri "I-Pod" Podladtchikov, who will spend the foreseeable future trying to explain to Costas and every other member of the Olympic media what, exactly, a YOLO flip is.
Unfortunately, the YOLO -- or switch frontside double cork 1440 -- proved to be White's undoing, and this was perhaps the most shocking element to White's shocking fourth-place finish. Over the past 10-plus years of halfpipe dominance, White has stuck to a remarkably simple game plan: Do just enough to win on your first run and leave a little something in the tank for the later runs, just in case you need it. And, as was the case all but a handful of times, when you don't need it, use that gas to light up your victory lap.
This time around, White had to siphon that gas from I-Pod, and he didn't draw hard enough. In a perfect pipe, with both riders landing their planned runs perfectly, White wins every time. He goes bigger than I-Pod and has one more hit in his run. In a perfect world, that's the ballgame. The second run is when White throws back-to-back YOLOs or even a triple cork, just to remind the rest of the field how far they have to go to catch him.
But nothing has been perfect for White this winter; not his record, not his slopestyle plans, not his physical well being, nor even the Olympic halfpipe itself. Despite crashing on the YOLO in his first run, when I-Pod landed the trick on his second run, White knew he didn't need pyrotechnics to win -- he just needed to land his first run cleanly. That's why the gear-grinding chatter of his under-rotated landing on the second YOLO attempt was such a shock. Mr. Automatic stalled out.
Of course, even now, there is no shame in being Shaun White. He's the winningest halfpipe rider in history, owns 15 X Games gold medals in three disciplines, is the head of a successful clothing/media/skateboard/scooter brand, and is the guitarist in a Lollapalooza-sanctioned rock band.
Sochi aside, with the momentum he has already built in action sports, White could spend the rest of his career conquering any number of new worlds. He even said at the post-event news conference that he plans to take a break from snowboarding and go on tour with his band. I wouldn't be surprised if White doesn't appear at any snowboard contests until 2016.
But here's another thing White said at the news conference: "The tricks I learned getting ready for this competition, I think, will carry on for the next couple of years. ... I had a specific run that I wanted to land and I didn't get to put that down, so that's one of the most frustrating things for me."
That doesn't sound like a guy who's ready to hang up his snowboard. My guess is that, after his snowboarding sabbatical, White holes up in another super, top-secret, special training ground and gets back to work dialing the YOLOs, the triple corks and any other trick he thinks he'll need to stay ahead of the pack. Maybe he'll even build a second private halfpipe with Sochi-style imperfections built in so he can get more comfortable riding in lousy conditions. (Or maybe the IOC will learn how to build a halfpipe, but I digress.) And maybe a 31-year-old White comes into the next Winter Olympics cycle pushing boundaries, not just with the tricks he's doing but the age at which he's doing them.
So, what comes next? Probably another shot at halfpipe gold in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018. After all, "two-time and former Olympic champion" just doesn't have the same ring, does it?