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A McTwist of fate: Shaun White saves his Olympics with clutch qualifying run

American snowboarder Shaun White could finally breathe a sigh of relief after making the halfpipe finals on his last qualifying run. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Before Shaun White could perform the ultimate of Shaun White tricks by trying to win his fourth snowboard halfpipe gold medal in five Olympics, he needed to qualify for the final. And that suddenly proved complicated on Wednesday afternoon.

He had fallen on his first of the two qualifying runs, crashing to the pipe’s bottom while doing his signature Double McTwist 1260, a trick he claims to have invented long before the string of Olympics. The stumble left him with but one last chance for Friday’s final. And a nervous kind of energy filled the crowd of snowboarders and team officials and reporters who had gathered on the path below.

Sports writer Les Carpenter breaks down what’s at stake for snowboarder Shaun White as he enters his fifth and final Olympic Games in Beijing. (Video: Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

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There are very few true American stars at the Beijing Olympics. Hours earlier, one of those, skier Mikaela Shiffrin, had crashed out of her second straight race, her dreams of dominance here in jeopardy. Now, on a mountain some 47 miles away, White stared down what could have been his final competitive halfpipe.

He has said these will be his last Olympics. He’s 35 and older than almost any active snowboarder. His knees have been hurting; his ankles are sore. His biggest rivals have been trying and landing bigger, more daring tricks and though he had entertained faint hopes of making a try for the 2026 Games in Milan, he finally decided last fall that he had to stop. Beijing would be the end.

He just didn’t imagine that end being in Wednesday’s qualifying, falling on a trick he has done thousands of times.

“The first run, you usually want to put in a great run for qualifying and build,” he said later.

Now that the first run was anything but great, the pressure was immense for his second ride. Any slip, any wayward twist, any catch of the board on the side of the halfpipe and snowboarding’s most glorious career would come to an inglorious end on the most routine of afternoons. ­

“What if I slip,” he said he thought. “Or something happens and I hit a snow chunk and it’s over?”

He started considering outlandish possibilities, such as his eye watering on the last trick or a piece of lint landing on his face.

A piece of lint couldn’t end everything could it?

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On the path below, his American teammates, long accustomed to seeing White do the impossible on mountains, snickered at suggestions he might be in trouble.

“He does well under pressure, so I’m pretty sure you will see him make it,” Lucas Foster said.

But White wasn’t sure. The weather was changing; a calm sunny day was turning dark and windy. He considered all that could go wrong with the McTwist, the trick that should have been his easiest. He hadn’t gone into it hard enough, he thought. He needed to push into this one harder. But not too hard. Landing it is like a golf swing, he explained later: Some days, something’s a little off.

He looked at the reporters gathered in the interview zones down below and imagined having to go from camera to camera, smiling and saying, “I’m still very happy to be here, but it sucks I can’t go to finals.” He thought about his mother, who he was sure would be angry for dragging out the drama.

And then it was time for the second run.

The scoreboard said he was in 19th place. He needed to get to at least 12th.

The icy truth about Olympic snowmaking

He plunged into the pipe, sailing easily through his first three tricks before climbing into his Double McTwist at the same spot where he had fallen about an hour before. This time, he pushed it harder.

“I really wanted it,” he said later.

He flipped and twisted, and his board landed perfectly on the snow. A trick later he was still on his feet, gliding out of the pipe, a roar filling the small crowd. His score appeared on the board: 86.25. Fourth place. He was going to the finals.

For the next 45 minutes, he beamed as he walked the long line of television cameras, booming cheerful hellos and telling again and again the story of standing at the top of the pipe and worrying about an early end to a long Olympics life.

“I don’t know, I’m so happy I’m not living that right now,” he said. “I’m living the other version, where I do what I came here to do and hit some heavy runs and I get my shot now. I’m so thrilled.”

He smiled.

“My stomach’s killing me, unraveling all the nerves,” he said on the day he wouldn’t let his last Olympics die two days too soon.

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