KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Shaun White came to these Sochi Olympics with big expectations. Already the owner of two gold medals, White qualified for two events and his goal here was as simple as it was lofty: to make history. No U.S. male had ever claimed three gold medals in the same event. Plus, White was hoping to double up in Sochi by trying to win the Olympic debut of slopestyle competition.
But he pulled out of the slopestyle event last week and then in Tuesday’s halfpipe finals, he struggled to even stay upright. With a fourth-place finish, he’ll leave the Sochi Olympics with zero medals.
Switzerland’s Iouri Podladtchivov, the Russian-born 2013 world championships winner, took gold with a score of 94.75, while Japan’s Ayumu Hirano (93.50) and Taku Hiraoka (92.25) took silver and bronze. White’s best score in the finals was 90.25, which means he missed a medal by two points.
It was a shocking conclusion for a U.S. team that had a chance to sweep the podium. In the event’s short history, the American men have dominated, winning eight of the 12 medals that have been awarded since halfpipe debuted at the 1998 Olympics, including all three in Salt Lake City and two apiece in Turin and Vancouver. And they appeared positioned for another strong showing at these Sochi Games. Three of the four American entrants advances to the finals with strong qualifying runs earlier in the day.
But when the sun set and the lights shined brightest on the pipe at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, the Americans faltered. All three riders took spills on both their runs in the finals.
They were not in good shape from the start. In the first run, each botched tricks, none worse than when White landed on the edge of the wall midway through his run. His score at the mid-point was 35.0, 11th in the 12-rider field.
Danny Davis’s score of 53.0 put him in 7th place, while Greg Bretz 21.75 had him sitting in last. Like White, Bretz and Davis both fell again on their second run, and neither was ever in contention for a top-3 finish.
The American riders were among the most vocal in criticizing the condition of the halfpipe following practice rounds on Sunday and Monday. But White posted the event’s highest qualifying score and Davis expressed confidence earlier in the day that riders would be able to successfully navigate the pipes slushy, bumpy surface.
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
White was trying to become the first American man to win three straight Olympic gold medals. Two-time gold medalist Shani Davis will take his shot at the feat Wednesday in the 1,000-meter speed skating race, trying to join speed skater Bonnie Blair as only the second U.S. athlete overall..
Bretz, a 23-year old rider appearing in his second Olympics — he finished 12th in Vancouver — rode plenty of momentum into the Sochi Games. In December he beat White at a Dew Tour event in Breckenridge, Colo. He posted the second-best score in the semifinal round Tuesday. But he finished the competition Tuesday in 12th place with a high score of 26.50.
And Davis, a Michigan native competing in his first Winter Games, has been a highly-touted rider since he was a teenager but missed the 2010 Games after he broke his back on an ill-fated, drunken ATV ride. Though White had the mainstream appeal, Davis had always been a strong rider, culminating with his gold medal win at the Winter X-Games two weeks ago in Aspen, Colo. He was considered a medal contender here at the Sochi Games but finished 10th place with a high score of 53.0.
The women’s halfpipe is scheduled for Wednesday at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.