White punctuates victory with Tomahawk
WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Shaun White’s hands were shaking. They were shaking righteously. He had clinched his second Olympic gold medal, and he still faced another run down the halfpipe at Cypress Mountain, the victory lap of all victory laps, and of the many things at which White excels, victory laps are not one of them.
“I can’t snowboard right now,” White said.
Only he had to. White came here to win, sure, but more than that, he wanted to introduce the world to the newest, greatest trick in snowboarding, the one he invented, perfected, nicknamed and planned on hitting to close out his second straight gold: the Double McTwist 1260, or, as he glossed it permanently on Wednesday night, the Tomahawk.
White named it after a steak he ate in Colorado, a 30-ounce side of meat he polished off himself. However impressive that may be – almost two pounds of medium-rare shoved into a 135-pound waif – it paled to its snowboarding doppelganger, a trick in which White careens off the top of a 22-foot-tall halfpipe into two front flips and 3½ twists.
He shoved off the top of the pipe, urged on by his personal coach, Bud Keene, who told White, in far coarser language picked up by those pesky NBC microphones, that if he was going to throw the Tomahawk, he had better stick it. And even though his speed leading into the Tomahawk was suspect, White willed himself through both flips, eked out that final half-spin and landed on the ground victorious, scoring 48.4 out of a possible 50 to become the fourth American male to win back-to-back gold medals in one sport.
“I came all the way out to Vancouver to do something amazing,” White said, “and I felt like it was the right victory lap.
“Did you like the trick? I aim to please.”
That’s White. Showman. Ringmaster. Goof. An amalgam of charm, wit, brains and talent unmatched in sports today. Not only is White’s preternatural ability superior to the world’s best halfpipe riders, he came to the Vancouver Games with a distinct advantage: White spent a week in December at the private halfpipe Red Bull built him in the San Juan Mountains in rural Colorado perfecting a variety of new tricks, including the Tomahawk.
“It’s groundbreaking,” said Mike Jankowski, the head halfpipe coach for the United States. “He’s the first one to try it and the first one to do it. No one else has attempted it. No one else feels comfortable or confident or safe at this time. Now, he’s the leader of the pack. He’s basically setting the road map for snowboarding right now.”
Almost a year ago, when riders started throwing double-cork tricks – double flips that were unthinkable at the 2006 Games, which White dominated with back-to-back 1080-degree spins – snowboarding evolved into something uncomfortable that simultaneously crushed riders’ confidence and endangered them. This was so new, so different, so liberating – and so frustrating, too, because for the sport to evolve, riders needed to learn and re-learn tricks and crash in doing so.
One of White’s top rivals, Kevin Pearce, suffered a traumatic brain injury when he missed a double cork and hit his head on the halfpipe. American Olympian Greg Bretz sported twin scrapes on his cheeks from wipeouts. For White to take something as dangerous as a double cork, add another half-twist to it and compound it with a trick as difficult as a McTwist, then, made his runs that much better in a sport he already owned.
“That pushed the sport further and faster than it had ever been before,” Keene said. “The Double McTwist was some whipped cream and a cherry on top of all that. It doesn’t take it to a whole different realm, but it significantly increased the difficulty.”
It wasn’t easy, of course. Before the Olympics, during a training session in Aspen, Colo., White took three epic crashes trying the Tomahawk. He left almost immediately thereafter. Sometimes, he stomped the trick with no difficulty, like his body was born to contort in such an odd fashion, and others, it was a beast, a burr, the impossibility that it seems when simply imagining what it feels like to soar above a solid sheet of ice, flip twice, spin 3½ times, lose every bit of your bearings and still land right-side up.
White considered taking his victory lap down the middle of the pipe, arms raised in victory, sponging the love given to him as overwhelming favorite. He couldn’t. That’s not snowboarding. It’s about feeding those fans, sticking tricks, embracing the freedom it allows.
Bandanna over mouth, goggles over head, White dropped into the pipe and stuck four tricks before the slow approach nearly derailed the victory Tomahawk.
“He didn’t take no for an answer,” Keene said. “He didn’t get enough air. But he made it anyway.”
White took off his board and chucked it aside. The helmet and goggles came off, his shock of red hair gleaming under the lights. He pointed to the crowd, to his family and friends, to the millions of children and grandmothers and everyone between that now knows what a Double McTwist 1260 looks like.
“It’s a game of one-upmanship out here,” Jankowski said, “and Shaun is a lot of ones better.”
All week, White talked about the Tomahawk. He called it his friend and enemy. He said he couldn’t stand it. He was proud to have invented it. He hoped the moniker would catch on. He didn’t sleep because of it. It consumed him.
And even though he didn’t technically need it, White really did, because otherwise this would’ve been just another gold medal for snowboarding’s best. Not boring, by any means, but not memorable like it was.
“Being me is a strange thing sometimes,” White said. “I’m just trying to get a grasp on it even now. I have fun. I have dreams. I have goals. And I just set out to do them. It’s basically what’s gotten me this far and what’s going to take me further.”
Where White goes only he knows. He’s 23. He has conquered snowboarding, skateboarding, the business world, everything in which he sticks his paws. For the time being, it’s a healthy dose of partying, a date with “Today” and Bob Costas, and a trip to the tattoo parlor.
White and Keene promised each other fresh ink with a gold medal. Keene said he didn’t know what to get. For White, the answer is obvious: a giant Tomahawk, to signify his triumphs and struggles, his ups and downs and, most of all, the new gold medal hanging from his neck.