ASPEN, Colo. -- In the months leading up to X Games Aspen, trying to make picks for which athlete stands the best chances of winning an event can feel like betting on a horse race. Sure, stats play into it somewhat. If he's a double-gold medalist in Slopestyle and Big Air who has made the podium two years in a row and is one of a handful of people who can land a shiny new trick on command, you would think it would be a safe bet that Mark McMorris could win Slopestyle again. But when Shaun White enters the equation, there's no such thing as a safe bet.
Most of McMorris' snowboard contest accolades were earned in a White-free environment. When the two finally had a legitimate face off in Slopestyle at X Games Tignes last March, White solidly reclaimed the top slot. In the face of that, it is difficult to put all your chips on the table, and say: "This guy. He's the one who's going to win in Aspen." But when you're making a wager stats can only get you so far. Sure, McMorris may have lost to White once. And yes, many a competitor has choked under the pressure of having to be "the guy who is going to beat Shaun White." At some point, you just have to trust a gut feeling when it kicks in.
In the beginning, the hype surrounding the matchup came down to the fact that McMorris had a backside triple cork 1440 in his back pocket, and White didn't. But in the week before the event, camera-phone footage from Breckenridge, Colo. broke the news that White had also figured out how to land the much ballyhooed trick as well. This was followed by rumors that he had also figured out a triple cork 16 -- a variation that neither McMorris nor any other competitor has attempted, much less landed. And confidence in the bet started to waver.
But when the snow spray settled at the end of Men's Slopestyle eliminations on Thursday afternoon, there was the 19-year-old McMorris, with a smile on his face, sitting in the No. 1 qualifying spot. And even the doubters started to think that maybe there was something to this matchup after all.
What no one predicted was that White would be nearly at the bottom of the eight-man qualifying list at the end of the elimination round, sneaking in at No. 7. When he followed this performance by declining to take his second run in SuperPipe elimination Thursday evening -- an uncharacteristic move that resulted in Iouri Podladtchikov gaining the No.1 qualifying spot -- speculation over what could be going on in White's head hit an all-time high. Could it be it possible that the media blitzkrieg surrounding McMorris' potential claim to White's X Games throne was getting to him? Or was he just tired from a full day of competing, and opted to save his legs in order to unleash in the Slopestyle finals?
Then the Snowboard Big Air came along Friday night. After most of the riders -- many of whom are in the Slopestyle finals -- threw triple corks in their runs, some for the first time, the triple cork point became somewhat moot. The statement McMorris made in an interview Wednesday, implying that he'd be worried if White didn't have a triple in his bag of tricks, "since almost everyone has them now," revealed itself not as a boast made by a rival, but as a simple statement of truth.
The reason the triple cork has become such a big deal when talking about this matchup is that no snowboarder has ever thrown the trick in a slopestyle contest before. Whoever ends up landing the first one in slopestyle may also be the snowboarder who takes home gold here in Aspen.
But the triple hasn't been thrown in a slopestyle contest before for a very legitimate reason. It's a dangerous trick that requires a certain amount of time in the air to get all the way around, and a course has never been built with jumps big enough to make throwing it safe before.
The Big Air jump that Friday's triple cork battle went down on is 70 feet from the takeoff to the top of the landing. The final jump in the Jeep Slopestyle course is also 70 feet. It was designed that way for a specific purpose, and the efforts of the course builders have already borne fruit: Both White and McMorris have already thrown backside triple cork 1440s off of it in practice.
The difference between the two 70-foot kickers is that the one in the Slopestyle course is at the bottom of a run. A rider can't just point it full speed like he would in Big Air and have the time from drop-in to takeoff to prepare for the one trick that's going to, hopefully, win the event. In Slopestyle, he has to get through three other kickers and a rail garden built above it first.
The difference between the triple corks White and McMorris threw in Slopestyle practice is that White skipped some features above it to get speed for the trick and McMorris threw his at the end of a full run. But then, White rarely ever pulls out his best tricks in practice, so no one ever knows what he's got up his sleeve until he's showing the world live on television midway through a finals run. And White is a calculated competitor. Chances are high that he's simply saving his best for last.
In the end, the triple might be the deciding factor between two otherwise too-close-to-call runs -- and given the skill level of all eight riders in the finals, those runs may not even be McMorris and White's. But whoever wins Slopestyle on Saturday afternoon won't get there with a triple alone. He'll have to throw down some pretty heavy tricks on the features before it to come out on top.
McMorris may have qualified for the finals in first place, but he hasn't won the event yet. In finals, everything can change in an instant. In his excitement to win the contest by throwing a triple, he runs the risk of crashing, and losing it all. He's going up against a seasoned veteran who is not only gunning for gold, he's gunning to claim the record for the most medals held by an X Games athlete ever. And White hates to lose, with a track record of riding brilliantly when he's up against the wall.
Because riders take runs in the order that they qualified in, six other snowboarders will drop in after White on the final run in the Men's Snowboard Slopestyle finals on Saturday afternoon. The very last will be McMorris. Not only is White the most dominant competitor in the history of the sport, with so many medals in Slopestyle he sometimes loses count of them all, that last spot is traditionally his. So no matter how well he snowboards, White will still have to sit back and watch as the only other rider who performs as well as he does in clutch situations takes the best run White has thrown and, in the final moments, tries to raise the ante -- chips on the table, all in.
The rest of us will be watching, too.
Men's Snowboard Slopestyle Finals broadcast live, Saturday at 2 p.m. ET.