KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — When the cameras zoomed in on the unusual sight of snowboarding’s biggest star crashing, even the soft, slushy Russian snow couldn’t cushion the fall. Shaun White got back on his board, finished the run and then, well after midnight, finally sped away from the Olympic course, leaving behind a snowboarding community and a global audience still trying to process what they had just witnessed.
White had made snowboarding a premier event of the Winter Olympics and blossomed into a worldwide star. His fourth-place finish in the men’s halfpipe Tuesday made clear that both the sport and its biggest icon are in a period of transition.
As White prepares to throw himself into a life less dependent on snowboarding, Tuesday’s finish gave the world its first glimpse of what the sport might be like without its familiar champion with the blazing red hair.
“The American public and the world now knows that there are other snowboarders beside Shaun White,” said Danny Davis, the American rider and Winter X Games champ who finished in 10th place here. “I mean, Shaun is — don’t get me wrong — one of the most talented, one of the best riders there is. But there are guys who are just as good, and if not better.”
White came to Sochi with big expectations. Already the owner of two gold medals, his goal was as simple as it was lofty: to make history. No U.S. male had claimed three gold medals in the same event. Plus, White was hoping to double up by trying to win the Olympic debut of the slopestyle competition.
Instead, he pulled out of slopestyle and then missed the podium in his signature event.
“I don’t really think tonight makes or breaks my career,” White said. “I’ve been snowboarding for so long, and I love it. It’s given me so much.”
Tuesday’s competition was uncharted territory for most on the mountain. Not only was White unfamiliar with being left off the podium, few riders had reached the top step of the medals platform while White was competing alongside them.
Mountains of the Olympics
“It’s just weird,” said Iouri Podladtchikov, the Swiss rider who won gold.
Podladtchikov had never topped White in a big competition. They squared off six times at the Winter X Games, and each year Podladtchikov left Aspen, Colo., more hungry than he arrived. “I felt so close to winning,” he said. “It was mine, it was there — and I didn’t win.”
White said he woke up Tuesday struck by the fear that he wouldn’t be able to successfully complete a single run. The conditions — the halfpipe surface was slushy and choppy — had frustrated him in the days leading into the event, affecting his preparation.
Like most riders, Podladtchikov, too, had concerns. At some point Tuesday, though, the Swiss rider pushed the slush out of his mind, asking himself, “What am I doing complaining? I should be focusing on what’s possible? What am I gonna do? How am I gonna play this?”
When White arrived at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, he saw an improved pipe — his score in the qualifying run stood as the biggest mark of the day — but course conditions still prevented him for launching the tricks he’d hoped would lead to the medals podium. “Tricks are still in my pocket,” he said afterward.
But it wasn’t subpar tricks that doomed him. White suffered spills and bad landings on both of his runs in the finals. His score at the mid-point was 35.0, 11th in the 12-rider field. On his second run, judges gave him 90.25, well behind Podladtchikov’s gold medal score of 94.75. Japan’s Ayumu Hirano (93.50) and Taku Hiraoka (92.25) took silver and bronze.
“I had a game plan,” White said. “I had a specific run I wanted to land. I didn’t get to put that down. That’s one of the most frustrating things for me. If I land my run and I’m beat, I’m okay with that. I definitely didn’t get that chance tonight.”
It was a shocking conclusion for the U.S. team. In the event’s short history, the American men had dominated, winning eight of the 12 medals that had been awarded since halfpipe debuted at the 1998 Olympics. They appeared positioned for another strong showing at these Games; three of the four American entrants advanced to the finals.
But when the sun set and the lights shined brightest on the pipe, the Americans faltered. All three riders took spills on both their runs in the finals.
White leaves Sochi the same way he arrived: as a two-time Olympic gold medalist. He’s 27 years old and has made no commitment to sticking with snowboarding through the 2018 Games. But he’s not leaving the sport either. He’ll take a breather, he said, and go on tour with his fledging rock band, Bad Things. Even as he and his sport grow in different ways, he’s not finished writing his story — on or off the mountain.
If Tuesday was a harbinger of things to come, snowboarding is preparing for an existence without White. And White’s plans for the future have always been much bigger than any one mountain.
“I would always like to be remembered as more than a snowboarder,” he said. “I have so much going on in my life, and this is one big part of who I am. But it’s not all that I am.”