In his first run of Snowboard SuperPipe elimination Thursday night, Shaun White accidentally downgraded his frontside double cork 1080 to a frontside double cork 900 on his second hit. From there, he was forced to throw out his planned run and start making up a new one as he went along. "I messed up and just started throwing tricks," White said after the contest. But that mistake led to the highest-scoring run of Round 1, despite the fact that it included only one double cork and not a single 1080. What his run had, however, was amplitude, clean landings and stylish tricks like floaty back-to-back 540s and an alley-oop rodeo on his final hit. On his first hit, a backside air, White flew 17 feet, 11 inches out of the pipe, the highest air of the night.
His run was not the most difficult, nor the most technical, but it put him five points ahead of the rest of the field. When his score of 90.33 flashed on the screens at Aspen's Buttermilk Mountain, it seemed to send a message that the sport of competitive snowboarding still values style and amplitude as much as progression. That, or the name Shaun White carries more clout than back-to-back doubles. For the sake of this story, we'll go with the former.
"With all the huge tricks coming into snowboarding, it would be cool to raise the style standard in judging, so in order to get a huge score, your run has to be flawless," says first-time finals competitor Matt Ladley, who qualified seventh. "It shouldn't just be about doing the biggest tricks, but also about having huge amplitude, good style and perfect landings. That should be worthy of placing in the top three." Thursday night, it was good enough to qualify White in first place. (He beat his Round 1 score in the second round with an equally clean, but more technical run that included back-to-back 10s.) But will air and style be enough for a win in Sunday night's final? Or has the fast-paced progression of snowboarding made it impossible to turn back the clock now that the judges know what is possible and expect to see those tricks in every run?
With a lot more spins, I think people wonder if snowboarding is getting whack, like gymnastics on snow.
-- Louie Vito
"With a lot more spins, I think people wonder if snowboarding is getting whack, like gymnastics on snow," says 2010 Olympic team member Louie Vito, who was the only rider other than White to land back-to-back double corks in qualifiers. "I hope not. I think you can have both in your run, big tricks and style." In fact, a more likely scenario is that judges will no longer reward only style or only big tricks. As the talent level evens out around the world, both are becoming necessary. If every rider in finals throws essentially the same tricks, what will separate them is their grabs, amplitude and the style and cleanliness with which they execute each trick.
"Everybody is still doing double corks, and new tricks are coming all the time," says first-time finals competitor Markus Malin of Finland. "It's good because we all have to try to keep up. But when you are trying new tricks, it can be scary. Sunday, I think amplitude is the thing the judges want to see. I think there is going to be epic riding."
Epic riding, and possibly new tricks, or riders throwing tricks for the first time in hopes of thwarting White's bid for a fourth straight SuperPipe gold. Because no matter how much emphasis a judging panel places on style, progression will continue, so riders will continue to embrace it. Especially when they have a platform like the X Games and its live television audience of millions. "I think we will see other guys besides Shaun with McTwist 12s and we might see new variations," says Bud Keene, who coaches White and Vito. "X Games is a great place to whip those out."
It's also a great place to be rewarded for them, because the judges and the thousands of fans gathered at the base of the halfpipe understand the work, commitment and guts it takes to learn and land a new trick in a contest. But to win the event requires more than hucking a new trick. Saturday night, SuperPipe gold medalist Kelly Clark became the first woman to land a 1080 in a contest, but she also boosted the highest airs of the night. Friday night, Torstein Horgmo pushed past double corks and landed the first contest triple in snowboarding history. The trick, along with a double cork 10, won him a gold in Snowboard Big Air. But he also qualified second in an extremely progressive Slopestyle contest, a discipline that calls out its insistence on maintaining "style" as part of the program by including the word in its name.
So instead of balking at progression that will likely never stop, better to embrace it and start throwing those flips and tricks with style. "If I didn't feel the need to keep pushing it and trying to learn new tricks, go bigger, flip and spin more, I'd probably stop competing," White says. "It's something inside of me. I want to get better. I can't turn off that level. That's what competition does, push me to the point of learning something I've never done." The next step is doing it with style.