ASPEN, Colo. - He is every bit as polished in a boardroom as he is on a snowboard — a meticulous caretaker of both his image off the snow and his reputation on it.
And yet, here's what Shaun White had to say about his return to slopestyle at last year's Winter X Games: "I don't want to say I did the 'human' move. But I was like, ya know, if I go out there, I'm gonna get owned."
He went out there, and, yes, it all went down exactly the way he expected.
Unprepared after taking two years off to focus on his Olympic halfpipe routine, the world's most famous snowboarder looked like an impersonator wearing a red wig as he rode across those rails.
He finished 13th out of 16, didn't qualify for final and, by the end of a day that seemed to turn snowboarding on its head, White, of all people, was eliciting sympathy from those other riders who did, in fact, own him.
For a day at least.
That day marked Day 1 of the push to the Sochi Olympics, where slopestyle will make its debut, two years from now. One important stopping point on that road comes Friday, when White heads out for preliminaries of the 2012 X Games with a bag of new tricks.
He had a minor setback Thursday when he tweaked his already sore left ankle during a practice run and had to be treated by medical staff at the bottom of the mountain. But his publicist, Crystal Garrett, said it wasn't serious, and White will be on the mountain Friday.
He doesn't expect to get owned this time.
"I could have totally ducked out and waited until I had the moves to win the event, then come back and do it," he said this week. "But I was like, 'Ya know what, this is going to teach me a lot.'
"Sometimes I think you do really need to lose. That felt like a true loss, and I respected it."
It made him realize, he said, "I can't compete with these guys. So I circled back, refocused on what I needed to do, looked at who won, what he did. I was able to build from there."
If this story line sounds vaguely familiar, it should.
It was in 2010, the lead-up to the Vancouver Olympics, when White took what felt like a body blow by finishing second to Danny Davis in an Olympic qualifier. Within hours of that loss he was on the practice pipe, perfecting the Double McTwist 1260 — the jump that would separate him from the pack once again.
He didn't even need it to win his second Olympic gold but put it out there during his second run — essentially a victory lap because he had already secured first.
It's not hyperbole to say that magic moment played a huge role in pushing the International Olympic Committee to add slopestyle and a few other "action sport" events to the program starting in 2014. Bottom line: One day of Shaun White at the Olympics isn't enough.
He modestly accepts that notion.
"Slopestyle, it's going to be a great event either way," he said. "You could say the Olympics might need snowboarding more than snowboarding needed them.
"It's give and take. But if I'm part of that, yeah, I'll take it."
Returning to slopestyle while he pushes his halfpipe routine forward is a return to the way things used to be for White — before the Olympics turned halfpipe into his priority, which, in turn, helped the 25-year-old superstar expand his growing influence on what young people wear and watch and buy.
In 2010, White had the highest Q Score of any active athlete, according to Sports Business Journal. It's that single trick on the halfpipe — the Double McTwist 1260, where he packs 3 1/2 twists into two head-over-heels flips while hovering over the edge of the pipe — that augmented his fame, while bringing a new level of excitement, and baggage, to his sport.
Will he try it? Can he do it? And should he? There was a time when snowboarding was supposed to be "organic" — not all about winning — so what kind of message does he send when a loss drives him so nuts that he's back on the halfpipe, trying something even more daring and dangerous to get back on top?
Many of these issues came to a head two years ago here in Aspen when White was practising before the Winter X final and hit his face, gruesomely, on the halfpipe. He was fine, but it was a shocking reminder of the fine line these athletes walk — one that was already on people's minds in 2010 after Kevin Pearce's near-fatal accident and is back in the headlines this month after the death of Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke.
"I knew if I didn't go out and compete after that accident, I'm going to create something in my head that says this trick is dangerous and I should be scared of it," White said. "Then, that will slowly build and the next thing I know I'm standing at the Olympics saying, 'I remember that crash and how I backed out of the X Games because of it. And now I'm standing here having to do this trick at the Olympics in front of more people.' I knew that could happen. So I sucked it up, ran back to the top and did it again right away."
He did the trick, won the X Games and took his second Olympic gold a few weeks later.
In short, he turned a failure into a success — not for the first time, and probably not for the last.
"If you haven't gone skiing in a while, then you come back to it, you're excited," White said. "That's what happened with me in slopestyle.
"I got really inspired, learned a bunch of tricks, now I'm really excited to be here and perform. Because I didn't live up to my standard of riding last season."
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