Shaun White competes in the men's halfpipe at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010 on Feb. 17, 2010 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Everyone knew what was coming.
Shaun White, having already secured the Olympic gold medal at the Vancouver Games, slid toward the halfpipe on his snowboard. Building momentum with each rise and fall on the icy walls, White cruised through his first four tricks.
Then, on the fifth hit, it happened.
White dropped his Double McTwist 1260, an unthinkable 3½ twists combined with two head-over-heels flips.
“I wanted a victory lap that would be remembered,” White said afterward. “I achieved that.”
Speculation over whether White would attempt the trick was a major story leading into the Vancouver Games. Eight years later, halfpipe snowboarding is again shaping up to be a marquee event this February at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. And after halfpipe skiing, as well as slopestyle for skiing and snowboard, debuted at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, they quickly picked up elite status, too.
American athletes aiming to compete in those events in South Korea — who are also expected at the U.S. Grand Prix, an Olympic qualifying event, this week in Copper Mountain, Colorado — say there’s not necessarily a trick as hotly anticipated as White’s Double McTwist 1260 this time around, but there will be no shortage of high-voltage, dare-devil maneuvers.
“The tricks that are going to be really separating who’s on the podium and who’s not is definitely going to be the triple corks,” said Ryan Stassel, a 2014 Olympian in snowboard slopestyle who is also hoping to compete in big air this time around. The event makes its Olympic debut in PyeongChang and snowboarders who qualify in slopestyle will also compete in big air.
The triple cork — any trick in which the athlete flips on the axis three times — is becoming a standard-bearing slopestyle trick both on snowboards and skis.
Stassel said this became the case on the men’s slopestyle circuit around the time of the Sochi Games, and some riders are now even moving into quad cork territory, which adds an extra flip. But the triple cork alone is enough to turn heads.
“The triple just gives it a wow factor because you’re going upside down three times,” he said.
On the women’s side, 2014 Olympic gold medalist Jamie Anderson said to expect more 900s and 1080s, and maybe — just maybe — even a triple cork of their own.
“I don't know if its true,” she said, “but I would love to see it.”
Men’s slopestyle skiers have been perfecting the difficult trick as well, said 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Nick Goepper, while the top women are likely to showcase double corks.
However, Goepper said to also look for more technical elements on the rails and other obstacles, such as pretzels, which are when a skier spins onto a rail one way, changes momentum and then spins the other way.
“I think having several pretzels in a slopestyle run, plus one if not two triple corks, will be key to success,” he said.
Halfpipe is the more mature discipline, having been an Olympic event for snowboarders since 1998. With walls that keep getting taller, though, the discipline continues to evolve for both snowboarders and skiers.
Kelly Clark, the 2002 Olympic women’s champion who is still one of the top riders, has seen the progression firsthand.
“I was at an event in New Zealand this summer and we saw women, I would say between eight and 10 women, did front 9s to even try to make the final,” she said, referring to 900-degree rotations. “The level of riding is really high.”
As for White, he hasn’t revealed what he might perform at the Olympics, but at last season’s U.S. Open in Vail, Colorado, he landed a cab double cork 1440 and a Double McTwist 1260 in the same run, something he’d never done before.
For years, the 1260 was at the cutting edge for men’s halfpipe skiers, said 2014 Olympian Gus Kenworthy. Now some of the top athletes are doing 1440s both ways.
“I think the winning run is going to be really big in amplitude, it’s going to be probably double corks on every hit if not almost every hit, and at least one big, big, big trick,” said Kenworthy, the 2014 Olympic silver medalist in slopestyle who also competes in halfpipe. “Whether it’s a 1440 or a new rotation that hasn’t been done, there will be the big one.”
The women are keeping right up, said Devin Logan, the Sochi women’s slopestyle silver medalist who also does halfpipe. And in addition to rotations, judges will also be paying attention to technical details such as which direction the athlete is facing or spinning.
“Definitely you’re seeing in the halfpipe back-to-back 9s, being able to spin both ways, forwards and switches are a huge thing that judges look at in your overall run,” she said.
Ultimately, though, one trick is just that.
Clark noted that some women are working on incredible tricks, such as landing a double cork. But a gold medal run in PyeongChang will have to be “the whole package.”
“It’s not going to be back to back 10s; its not going to be a double. It’s every single trick,” Clark said. “Every single thing has to be perfect, big, executed well and progressive.”