PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – The Flying Tomato still soars.
Shaun White put together an epic final run to claim his third gold medal in Olympic men's halfpipe, slicing through the gray South Korean sky Wednesday to post a score of 97.75 for the 100th overall gold by the United States in the Winter Games.
The 31-year-old White trailed Japan's Ayumu Hirano going into the last of the three runs in the 12-man final, but put together a daring set that included consecutive 1440-degree spins.
White threw his board in the air when his winning score flashed, setting off a delirious celebration.
Hirano, who vaulted into the lead during his second run with a score of 95.25, took silver. Australia's Scotty James took home bronze.
White is the first American male to win gold at three separate Winter Olympics. Speedskater Bonnie Blair won gold in the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Games
James, White and Hirano traded electric runs during qualifying Tuesday, “sending it” in snowboarding terms and sending a bit of a message in the process. The three have eyed this showdown on the world stage for months and Hirano – who edged James in the X Games last month, an event White opted to skip after locking down a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team – shrugged when asked if he was concerned about the 98.50 White put up on Tuesday to earn the right to go last in the finals.
“I know what he does and he knows what I do,” Ayumu said.
Namely, put on a show.
White put together a dazzling first run at warm, slushy Phoenix Snow Park, throwing a 1440 early on and building from there. He tossed his helmet toward the crowd when he finished and celebrated in the waiting area while the judges deliberated. His score of 94.25 was tops after the first of the three finals runs, but Hirano recovered after sitting down during his first trip to put White on notice during the second.
The 19-year-old uncorked back-to-back 1440s of his own and when the crowd exploded as his 95.25 flashed, he simply shrugged his shoulders, unfazed by the stakes.
Hirano missed an opportunity to go even higher when he washed out on his final run.
James put together an unspectacular last set, setting the stage for White. He called the opportunity to go last his “good luck spot.” And with good reason. He went last during his gold medal runs in Turin in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010.
Yet White had the top of the podium locked up during his last sprint down the pipe on both occasions. This moment required something more. And he delivered.
While the culture of snowboarding occasionally finds itself at odds with the competitive nature of the sport – James openly questioned the judging before the games and even said he's “not huge on perfect scores” – White embraces it.
His gold in Turin as a mop-topped 19-year-old helped launch him into a global brand. His repeat performance in Vancouver four years later, one he finished by stomping a “Double McTwist 1260” with gold already in hand, cemented his status as arguably the greatest ever in his sport.
This time around, it felt like redemption.
White failed to reach the podium four years ago in Sochi, a loss that led him to do more than a fair amount of soul searching in the aftermath. His life became more complex.
Injuries started to pile up. Last fall he underwent emergency surgery on his nose and upper lip in New Zealand after smashing into the deck of the halfpipe during training and arrived in South Korea with stitches in his mouth that still hadn't fully dissolved.
In the interim, the sport that he defined went on without him. White found himself no longer inventing tricks so much as trying to master the pioneering acrobatics of others, including Hirano.
Labeled as snowboarding's next big thing at 13, the 5-foot-2 Hirano is a twisting, flipping, boundary-pushing whirl hardly afraid at taking on his idol.
Just not ready, at least this time, to take him down.