ZHANGJIAKOU, China—Snowboarding exists on a continuum of perpetual progression. What won you an Olympic gold last time won’t even get you on the podium this time around. It’s not just go big or go home, it’s go bigger than anyone’s ever gone before.
Shaun White, the snowboarding GOAT about to drop into the halfpipe for his final Olympics, has spent his entire career both raising and clearing the bar. He’s won Olympic gold three times, each time needing to find a new level, a new trick, a new height above and new strength within.
Riders who idolized White growing up are now stepping right over his achievements, crafting once-unthinkable tricks, breaking once-impenetrable boundaries, craving the chance to hit marks White never reached. They’ve begun landing the triple cork, a triple diagonal flip once thought impossible, and they’re threatening to unleash the trick on White and the world this week.
Attempting the triple cork once put White in the hospital. Landing it could put him on the podium one last time.
Raising the bar, year after year
White has been a millennial avatar longer than the word “millennial” has even existed. He snared his first sponsors at age 7. Eight years later, he missed the 2002 Olympics by a single slot, then won his way into the next five. Now 35, he sees the sun setting; he’s already announced that Beijing will be his final competition. But before he hangs up the board, he’s got one more chance to push snowboarding one more trick into the future.
He won gold in 2006 by pulling off back-to-back 1080s — three rotations — on a halfpipe that was four feet shorter than the current 22 feet. He repeated gold in 2010, landing a Double McTwist 1260 — two flips, 3 1/2 total spins. But in 2014, he could only watch as Iouri Podladtchikov of Switzerland threw down a move he created called the “Yolo” — a cab double cork 1440, two flips and two 360-degree rotations — that White tried, and failed, to replicate.
Four years after that, down to his final run and in second place behind Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, White unleashed his finest Olympic performance to date, back-to-back double cork 1440s — two straight jumps in which he flipped twice, rotating four total times before landing. At the time, it was the toughest combination on the planet, and White had never landed the combination prior to PyeongChang, not even in practice, and it was enough to win gold once again.
Not any longer.
With one trick, the world changed
The world changes slowly, and then suddenly all at once. Snowboarding launched suddenly into the future last October, when many of the sport’s finest halfpipe stars gathered at the Swiss Alps resort of Saas-Fee. It turned into snowboarding’s version of a home run derby or slam-dunk contest, an exhibition when the sport’s best pushed the sport’s limits … and then broke right though them.
Over the course of two weeks at Saas-Fee, four Japanese riders landed clean frontside triple cork 1440s — three flips and a twist — into air bags, a far safer method of practice than landing on hard, unforgiving snow.
“It’s an extremely difficult trick,” says Ben Elliot, snowboarding coach at Carrabassett Valley Academy, a private school in Maine that’s produced 12 Olympians, including three gold medalists. “If you don’t spin enough, you will fall and potentially get extremely injured. I’ve seen plenty of people knocked out, getting broken bones just trying stuff. The difference between just a few degrees of rotation can mean everything.”
Inspired and motivated, White began working on the triple cork, landing more than a dozen into an air bag during a later training session. When Hirano finally landed the triple cork in competition at a Dew Tour stop in Copper Mountain in December, the line was clear, and the rest of the snowboarding world — including White — stood on the low side of it.
But White had been here before. He’d attempted the triple cork back in 2013, even landing it in an airbag. But trying it on snow put him in the hospital once and nearly cracked his pelvis another time, so he put it aside. Maybe he thought he’d never have to think about the triple cork again; maybe he always knew this day would come.
“I’m not, like, going to just hand it over,” he told the Washington Post earlier this year. “I’m not going to walk away. I’m going to give it everything I have at this Olympics. It’s my title to defend.”
The wicked physics of the triple cork
The halfpipe increases the triple cork’s magnitude of difficulty because of geometry. In contrast to big air and slopestyle, where the rider is continuously moving downhill and forward, a rider within the bounds of a halfpipe is continuously moving downhill and back inward, into the heart of the halfpipe.
Where a rider leaping off a big hill has forward momentum and a full sky’s worth of air ahead, a rider coming out of a halfpipe is only moving upward as long as they can fight off gravity … and then it’s back into the halfpipe. In other words, tricks that riders can achieve off ramps aren’t possible in halfpipe … yet.
“The halfpipe is 22 feet deep, and you’re going 20 feet [up] out of that,” Elliot says. “There’s no room for error. If you catch the coping, where the angle and the slope meet, you’ll blow up.”
The triple cork sits at the perfect nexus of skill and style that’s always defined snowboarding. Governed by strict rules — a rider must grab the board to lock into the cork in order to achieve full points — it’s also the most exhilarating expression of freedom possible to a halfpipe rider. The triple cork is a forceful rejection of gravity and a mastering of the physics of the universe, if only for a moment.
The difficulty of the triple cork isn’t just achieving it, but incorporating it into a routine that involves four or five other tricks. Like a golfer whose only skill is driving the ball 400 yards, a rider who relies on the triple cork alone will make highlight films but not podiums. Even though he landed the triple cork in the December Dew Tour event, Hirano finished only fifth, because he was unable to link it to another trick in the run.
White understands the stakes here. He knows he’ll have to surpass every Olympic achievement of his stellar career in order to snare one more medal. Like a poker player keeping his hole cards well concealed, White isn’t revealing anything about his plan, other than the fact that he most assuredly has a plan.
"I have an idea in my head of what runs I'd like to put down and as long as I can put those down, then I'm happy,” he said. “You've got to be content with your own riding and level as long as you can go out there and put down your best.”
That’s a nice bit of just-happy-to-be-here, but White didn’t climb the mountain, again and again, by just being happy to hang around base camp.
“A lot of times when guys are trying tricks, they keep it pretty secret,” Elliot says. “It’s possible he might have been working on this. Shaun likes to go big.”
“I don't know how many kids really aspire to be a cowboy and get to be a cowboy,” White said earlier this week. “At a young age, snowboarding is what I wanted more than anything and to be walking in these shoes today is just incredible.”
Like a cowboy, he’s got one last challenge before he rides off into the sunset. And like a country song, he’s got the chance to prove that even if he isn’t as good as he once was, he can be as good once as he ever was.
Shaun White versus the field, Shaun White versus the triple cork, Shaun White versus himself. It’s going to be be one hell of a gunfight.