CYPRESS MOUNTAIN, British Columbia–What a day for Team USA. Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso go gold and silver in Women’s Alpine Skiing Downhill. Shani Davis defends his 2006 Olympic title with another gold, while teammate Chad Hedrick skates to bronze in Men’s Long Track Speed Skating. And then, the American men faced off in Snowboard Halfpipe. Did they pull a double medal stunner like their teammates?
Welcome to the big show.
With four riders competing in the final, Team USA aimed for a podium sweep. Shaun White, Louie Vito, Scotty Lago and Gregory Bretz tricked their hearts out.
“My coach said at the top, ‘Don’t do this unless you’re gonna stomp it,’” White said.
Oh, he stomped it all right.
“Tonight was basically pulling out all the stops for my last run and doing something that’s never been done before,” White said. “It was the savvy thing to do. Saucy. Keep it weird.”
“I think the U.S. put together a super-strong team,” Lago said after the qualifying round earlier today. “We’re all top performers.”
A sliver of the moon hung in the black sky as I made my way into the venue at Cypress Mountain up the no less than 191 steps (I counted) that led to the grandstand. The railings were strung with blue lights to illuminate the night. A live DJ spun beats as the Olympians warmed up in the halfpipe.
The vibe felt more like a party than a sporting event as “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)!” by the Beastie Boys played to a hip-hop mash-up. The aroma of pot filled the air; someone must have been smoking in the crowd. And somehow, it all fit with the whole laid-back snowboarder vibe that inspired images of The Dude in “The Big Lebowski.”
But unlike the doobie-doing Dude, these were boarders, not bowlers. Not only are they world-class athletes, they’re the best in the world.
Lying beside the sleeping snowboard and ski cross course, the pipe was waiting. At 165 meters long, 20 meters wide and 6.7 meters high, it’s almost double the height of the pipe when the sport kicked off at the Olympics in Nagano in 1998, and 4 feet higher than in Torino in 2006.
The crowd of 4,400 counted down to the competition along with the numbers on the big screen. The show was about to begin. Shaun White, defending his 2006 Olympic gold, would ride last—the big finale of the big show.
The first rider was Justin Lamoureux of Canada. The crowd stomped him into the pipe. He posted 33.8 out of 50, likely not enough to medal. But he would have another shot in the second run. The final score is the better of the two.
The music continued throughout the competition. Songs like Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” played as the riders dropped into the pipe.
Scotty Lago rode fourth. He hit all his tricks for a score of 42.8 to put him into first. He waved to the crowd as he walked through the snow.
Greg Bretz dropped next, riding smoothly until he sat the landing of his last move for a disappointing score of 18.3.
Swiss rider Iouri Podladtchikov, better known as iPod, got some big air for a clean ride all the way down. A score of 42.4 put him into second.
Louie Vito pulled back-to-back Double Corks and finished cleanly for a score of 39.1, putting him in third.
And Shaun White, the hero of the roaring crowd? He got a lot of amplitude for a big run. But where was the ballyhooed Double McTwist 1260, also known as the Tomahawk, which White says he named after a 30-ounce T-bone steak he ate in Aspen. Maybe he was saving the best for last. He ended the first run with a score of 46.8—an easy shot at first. He high-fived his teammates as the U.S. moved into the second run in first, second, fifth and eleventh.
About 15 worker bees shoveled and raked the pipe between runs. A frigid chill kept the bundled-up crowd wiggling in their seats. Canada finally was living up to its wintry reputation.
Bretz crashed again on his second run and raised his arms in a shrug of resignation. At just 19 years old, he’ll be back.
Vito, trying to move from fifth into the medals, got some big air for a clean ride. But a score of 38.4 wouldn’t cut it. He stayed in fifth.
Finland’s Peetu Piiroinen hit it big and moved into second place with a score of 45.0; good, but not enough to catch up to White.
With only two riders to go, Lago was guaranteed at least a bronze medal. Trying to best that on his second run, he crashed his third trick and settled for the bronze.
“Previous to this year I was considered kind of an underdog because I would choke when I needed to stomp,” Lago said. “I worked a little bit with a sports psychologist this summer and tried to stay positive. The biggest thing for me was living in the moment and taking it hit by hit.”
Already sitting in first with no other riders left, White won the gold before even completing his second run. He headed into the pipe ready for a victory ride, an encore to an already golden performance.
“I wanted a victory lap that would be remembered,” he said. “I like to put on a show and show everybody what I can do.”
So this time, at the end of his run, he threw down his legendary Tomahawk—a mind-boggling combination of three and a half spins and two flips. The crowd, basking in his every twist and turn, went bananas. With the gold in hand, White didn’t even need to see his score—a near-perfect 48.4.
“It’s history, man,” he said with a laugh. “Shake and bake.”
White is now the fourth American male to successfully defend his Olympic title. Dick Button was the first in figure skating in 1948 and 1952. And now three have done the trick at these Olympic games: Seth Wescott in Snowboard Cross (2006 and 2010), Shani Davis in 1000m Long Track Speed Skating (2006 and 2010) and Shaun White in Snowboard Halfpipe (2006 and 2010).
White said he felt more pressure at these games than in 2006.
“This time around was completely and in no way like the last time around,” he said. “I’ve had crashes, I’ve had surgeries on my hand. I almost lost my head at the X-Games. It wasn’t easy in the slightest. I’m just glad I put it down and was able to represent.”
Finland’s Peetu Piiroinen got the silver, with a score of 45.0 in his second run. Lago took bronze with 42.8 points. Since the halfpipe debuted at the Nagano games in 1998, the U.S. has won 12 of the event’s 21 Olympic medals.
Americans Vito and Bretz finished out of the medals in fifth and 12th, places respectively.
“I’m stoked for Shaun. I’m stoked for Scotty,” Bretz said. “I’m just stoked.”
Looking to the future, White said he’s already considering another Olympic try, and hinted that the sport still has room for growth.
“We’re just tapping into what is possible,” he said. “We have to get creative, which is a cool place to be in.”
So where to next for the unstoppable White, who has re-nicknamed himself The Animal?
“Every street in Vancouver tonight with this guy on my shoulders,” White said, pointing to Lago.
The Animal is going on the prowl. To borrow one of White’s favorite phrases, it’s gonna get weird.
This post originally appeared in the Washington Times Communities on Feb. 18, 2010.