COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. — When Shaun White pulls off his helmet and goggles, the damage is still visible. He has a fresh one-inch scar on his forehead and another detectable amid the red stubble on his upper lip.
“Want to see the ‘before’ picture?” he said with a chuckle, pulling out his phone. “Check this out.”
The image on his phone was a selfie of sorts, much more grotesque than the PG-13 photo he shared on Instagram following his October tumble. This one showed his upper lip completely filleted open, split from the nasal septum to the lip. His forehead looked like it met a blender, and the tip of his nose had been ground to a bloody, cavernous mess.
“But it filled in, which is really killer,” White said. “Obviously, I know a bit about injuries, but the body is incredible. It was missing and then filled in — came right back to normal.”
White, 31, returns to the halfpipe this week for his first competition of the season, a Grand Prix event that should offer an early glimpse of what to expect at the PyeongChang Olympics. He posted the third-highest score in Thursday’s qualifying round, advancing to Saturday’s final. His impressive qualifying run suggests the two recent horrific spills might not have much of a lasting effect on his snowboarding abilities.
White crashed in October while training in New Zealand, tearing up one of the most recognizable and marketable Winter Olympics faces as he attempted a double-flip 1440. Doctors sewed him up — 62 stitches in all. That fall came just a few weeks after another training spill bruised his hip, injured his liver and left him urinating blood. That crash also required a hospital visit and ultimately prompted him to withdraw from a competition in New Zealand.
“It could’ve been worse,” White said in an interview this week. “I’m pretty fortunate. I feel like I’ve already healed up quite a bit. It’s just frustrating more than anything.”
Taking aim at his fourth Olympic Games, White missed a month of training but says he’s healthy entering this week’s halfpipe contest, which serves as the first Olympic halfpipe qualifier. “This was more of a superficial injury, in a sense,” he said, “Visually jarring. But physically, I can still ride and do my thing.”
He says he’s crashed enough and suffered enough injuries in that he’s not scared to strap on the snowboard and attack the halfpipe with the same confidence, athleticism and artistry that made him the sport’s biggest icon.
“I immediately got back on snow as soon as I could for that exact reason — I didn’t want to be fearful,” he said. “I didn’t want to get to this point and be hesitant to do a big trick.”
White, an Olympic champion in both 2006 and ’10, is coming off an up-and-down season. He opened the campaign with an 18th-place finish and then finished in 11th place at the Winter X Games, his worst result there since he was 13. He didn’t publicize it at the time, but White says that he underwent surgery on his left ankle before the season, which hindered his early performances. He closed the season by reminding everyone that he’s still got plenty of tricks up his sleeve, finishing in first at the U.S. Open in Vail, Colo., in March.
“Shaun is never really out the picture,” said American rider Chase Josey, ranked No. 3 in the world behind Australia’s Scotty James and White. “He’s still riding really, really well.”
White’s PyeongChang pursuit is a bit of a redemption story. After reaching the top of the podium in Turin and Vancouver, White settled for fourth in Sochi four years ago . It was perhaps the most stunning finish of his career, and as a group, the U.S. snowboarding team provided one of the biggest Sochi surprises by missing the podium entirely in the event. The Americans had dominated the men’s halfpipe since it debuted at the 1998 Winter Games, winning eight of 12 possible medals. They claimed at least two of the podium spots in 2006 and 2010 and won all three medals at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Today’s top American riders hope the Sochi Games were just a blip, and they feel several U.S. snowboarders could challenge for a spot on the PyeongChang podium. The field at this weekend’s Grand Prix is deep, including James and Iouri Podladtchikov, the gold medal winner from Sochi. But there are also several Americans who could be in the mix, including White, Josey, Matt Ladley, Danny Davis, Greg Bretz, Taylor Gold and Ben Ferguson.
“The fact of the matter is there are more medal threats on some of our teams than there are spots on the U.S. Olympic team,” said Mike Jankowski, head coach of the U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Freeskiing teams.
Regardless of how deep the talent pool might be, the United States can only send four men to compete on the PyeongChang halfpipe. That means some talented riders are going to have to follow the action on television instead of making the trip to South Korea.
“There’s around 15 extremely talented eligible athletes trying to make the four-person Olympic team,” Josey said. “So it’s going to be a really competitive season coming up in these four qualifying events. It’s just going to come down to who can perform at these events and kind of get ahead of the competition.”
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