PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – In the aptly-named Phoenix Snow Park, flame-haired Shaun White rose from the ashes of his Sochi defeat to win his third Olympic gold medal and capture the 100th gold for Team USA in Olympic Winter Games history.
Under overcast skies Wednesday, White dramatically came from behind to stomp his third run and win the men’s halfpipe snowboarding competition in the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“I had to dig deep for this one,” White said. “It was so overwhelming. I was crippled with joy.”
White scored 97.75 points, as Ayumu Hirano of Japan won his second straight Olympic silver medal with 95.25 points and Scotty James of Australia was third with 92.00.
White, 31, also won gold medals in 2006 and 2010 and was fourth four years ago, a disappointment that forced him to re-evaluate his life and rededicate himself to his sport.
“This is my third gold medal at my fourth Olympics,” White said, “and it just means the world to me to come back from the defeat at Sochi to find the love and passion in the sport again in my life and be able to deliver a run like this.”
After Hirano put together an exemplary second run to surpass White’s first-run score, the American had the final chance – just as he had four years earlier.
“It was a déjà vu situation from Sochi, standing there, needing to land a run to win the Olympics and I just couldn’t do it,” White said. “I was defeated before I dropped in in my mind, and I was so thankful that I got to stand there again and know who I am and know what I can do and do that run to win it.
“It’s rare you get these opportunities to redeem yourself in your life and your career, and I took advantage of that.”
White told himself to “savor this moment because you might just win the Olympics,” and he dropped and “just let all those cares and worries go away and truly believed in myself.”
He did back-to-back 1440s, a combination he landed for the first time.
“I knew I had it in me to do it and I did it,” White said. “I’m just so happy.”
When his score appeared, White flipped his snowboard in the air and dropped to his knees in the finish area.
He hugged Hirano, who as a 13-year-old just six years ago was touted as “the next Shaun White.”
White, however, said he wasn’t finished being the original.
He proved that Wednesday.
White, who scored 98.50 in the qualifying rounds on Tuesday, dropped in last on each run among the 12 finalists.
After his first run, White thrust his arms into the air, ripped off his helmet and hurled it in the air, shouting, “Whoooooaaa.” The helmet was graciously returned to him instead of winding up on eBay.
The crowd thought White should have earned more points, but he nodded his head at the score.
“I was hoping that first run was going to stay through, maybe get a victory lap,” said White, referring to a run after a win has been secured. “It was one the biggest 1440s I’ve ever done in my career on that first hit.”
The mood at the venue turned somber early in the second run when 16-year-old Yuto Totsuka of Japan crashed and was taken down the pipe by sled. A spokesman for the Japanese team said Totsuka was conscious, but had pain on his hip bone and was transferred to a hospital to be checked out.
His teammate, Hirano, then gave Japan something to cheer, taking the lead.
“He put down an amazing run and so the pressure was on,” White said.
Rather than watching the competition, he said he took laps around the mountain on the chairlift, “saying hi to some of the the boardercross riders, anything to distract from this imminent pressure cooker situation.”
But White slipped off his edge midway through his second run, scoring 55.00 points.
That gave the third run the drama that was missing the day before when Team USA’s Chloe Kim cruised to the women’s halfpipe gold.
Hirano was having a great third run when he sat down and scored only 43.25. James was next, but botched a landing and his run was over with 40.25 points.
And then it was White’s turn, wearing an all-white suit, the U.S. flag on his shoulder. Because it was cloudy, he had to look for blue lines to land on while flipping through the air.
After he completed his run, put his head in his hands and waited for his score.
"Oh man, that was awful and amazing at the same time,” White said. “I knew I did a great ride and I was proud of that and I could walk away with my head high, but when they announced my score and I'd won, it crippled me.”
The disappointment that had dogged him for four years was now a thing of the past. Also in the competition, White did the same trick that landed him in the hospital in New Zealand late last year.
“So there were a lot of obstacles to overcome,” he said, “and now it's all worth it.”
With tears in his eyes, White jumped up and down hugging people. In the finish area, he was congratulated by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.
Team USA’s Ben Ferguson was fourth with 90.75 points, while Chase Josey was sixth (88.00) and Jake Pates finished eighth (82.25).
“The easiest way to describe the competition would just be amazing,” said Australia’s James. “It was a day for everyone to put on a show. I was expecting a really good battle and that’s what it was.”
The defending Olympic champion, Iouri “I-Pod” Podladtchikov, crashed in training at the X Games in late January, suffering injuries including breaking his nose. Although he was in PyeongChang, he was not ready to compete.
White is the third-oldest U.S. winter Olympic individual gold medalist after Jim Shea (who was 33 when he won skeleton in 2002) and Seth Wescott (33 when he won boardercross in 2010).
He ranks second among U.S. males for gold medals at the Winter Games behind Eric Heiden, who won five speedskating titles at the 1980 Games.
White is also the first U.S. man to medal three times in the same event at the Winter Games. Speedskating Bonnie Blair was the first American, but her three titles in the 500-meters were only six years apart while White’s are a Team USA record 12 years apart.
For Team USA, he won the 71st gold medal in 2006 and the 83rd in 2010.
“There are a lot of 100s in my journey here,” White said. “Yeah, I’m proud to win the gold for myself, for Team USA. I’m proud of how ahead of the curve the U.S snowboarding team is.”
The man once known as “The Flying Tomato” because of his flowing red hair – now shorn – noted that after he scored a perfect 100 at a recent competition in Snowmass, Colorado, “My family keeps referring to me as Mr. Perfect. ‘Oh, Mr. Perfect wants more steak because he’s Mr. Perfect.’”
Mr. Perfect earned all the steak he can eat Wednesday.