Shaun White

Shaun White pulls out of slopestyle; Canadians react

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Shaun White withdrew from the Sochi Olympic slopestyle snowboarding competition Wednesday, citing injury risk one day before the event makes its Winter Games debut.

“After much deliberation with my team, I have made the decision to focus solely on trying to bring home the third straight gold medal in halfpipe for Team USA,” White said in a statement, according to TODAY. “The difficult decision to forego slopestyle is not one I take lightly as I know how much effort everyone has put into holding the slopestyle event for the first time in Olympic history, a history I had planned on being part of.

“With the practice runs I have taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympic goals on.”

Riders raised concern over the course’s safety after a three-hour training session Monday and proposed changes to officials after Norwegian medal contender Torstein Horgmo broke a collarbone in a crash and withdrew from the Olympics.

White jammed a wrist in training Tuesday, but said it was “blown out of proportion” and that he was feeling healthy earlier Wednesday. He skipped slopestyle training Wednesday.

“I’m feeling healthy,” White said in a press conference before announcing his withdrawal. “In snowboarding you get bumps and bruises all the time.”

If White prevails in halfpipe Tuesday, he will become the first U.S. man to win the same Winter Olympic event three times. (Speed skater Shani Davis will attempt the same feat a day later in the 1000m.)

White, 27, won every Winter X Games slopestyle title from 2003 to 2006 before focusing more on halfpipe. He finished fifth at the 2013 X Games and did not enter the event this year but was considered an Olympic medal contender.

Slopestyle’s Olympic debut will go on without White and Horgmo starting with qualifiers Thursday and a final Saturday.

That makes a Canadian podium sweep very possible with two-time X Games champion Mark McMorris, 2013 European X Games champion Sebastien Toutant and reigning X Games champion Max Parrot.

McMorris is recovering from a broken rib suffered in a Jan. 25 crash at the X Games.

Toutant and Parrot, who are not attempting halfpipe, weighed in on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/sebtoots/status/431049913062133760

https://twitter.com/maxparrot/status/431040186135633920

Americans Chas GuldemondSage Kotsenburg and Ryan Stassel are also in the mix.

Four other men are slated to attempt the slopestyle-halfpipe double, including Finland’s Peetu Piiroinen, who won 2010 Olympic silver behind White in halfpipe.

White also gave up a bid to become the first Winter Olympian to win every event they entered in a career, having entered at least four events. Canadian hockey player Caroline Ouellette will get that chance in Sochi, too.

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French ice dancers break world record again

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French ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron broke their own world record scores in the last major competition before the Olympics.

Papadakis and Cizeron totaled 203.16 points with 121.87 in Saturday’s free dance at the European Championships, both new bests, in Moscow.

Full results are here. NBCSN will air coverage Saturday at 7 p.m. ET.

The French go into the Olympics as favorites over Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won all three of their head-to-heads last season.

But the French finally overcame the 2010 Olympic champions Virtue and Moir at December’s Grand Prix Final.

Virtue and Moir rank No. 2 under an eight-year-old ice dance system with a personal best of 199.86 points.

Papadakis and Cizeron became the youngest world champions in ice dance in 40 years in 2015, then repeated as world champs in 2016.

Virtue and Moir returned after two years off for the 2016-17 season and went undefeated, including dethroning the French at worlds.

Three U.S. couples are the top contenders for the Olympic bronze medal.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White have not competed since becoming the first U.S. Olympic ice dance champions in Sochi.

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MORE: NBC Olympics PyeongChang preview series on Netflix

Tonga flag bearer from Rio says he qualified for Winter Olympics

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Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless, oiled-up Tongan flag bearer from the Rio Games, said he qualified for the PyeongChang Olympics in cross-country skiing on Saturday.

“This was my last race possible, and we did it,” Taufatofua said in an interview with Olympic Channel, which also reported that he qualified. “This is a miracle.”

Taufatofua said he qualified at the final weekend of the Olympic qualifying period in Iceland, which is more than 9,000 miles from his home archipelago.

The last two events before qualification ends were Saturday’s freestyle race and a classic race scheduled for Sunday. Saturday’s results have not been posted yet.

Taufatofua completed a journey this season that included races in Colombia, Turkey, Poland and Armenia.

Taufatofua said he had seven chances to qualify for PyeongChang before Saturday and failed in all of them, finishing last each time (The official results show Taufatofua beating skiers from Malaysia and Mexico in some of these races.).

Taufatofua scrambled to make it to Iceland from Croatia this week. He said his group drove three days through a blizzard, an avalanche closing off the road at one point.

“People don’t see the hard work that goes behind,” he said. “They just see the shiny guy that walks with the flag.”

Taufatofua lost his opening Olympic taekwondo match by mercy rule in Rio, two weeks after his viral appearance in the Opening Ceremony.

He announced in December 2016 that he was switching to cross-country skiing in a bid for PyeongChang.

Cross-country, while a physically taxing pursuit, is one of the easier Winter Olympic sports to gain qualification for athletes from nations without much Winter Games history.

“I decided to find the hardest sport possible because I needed a new challenge,” Taufatofua said. “The goal was to do it one year, and we did it.”

Taufatofua debuted at the 2017 World Championships and was 153rd of 156 finishers in the 1.6km sprint freestyle.

It took Taufatofua 5 minutes, 44.72 seconds to complete the course in Lahti, Finland, which was about 10,000 miles from Tonga. The top qualifier clocked 3:11.72.

How will he dress at the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony, where outdoor temperatures are likely to be below freezing?

“One step at a time,” Taufatofua said. “Right now, I just want to go and party. I destroyed myself just to get here.”

In 2014, Bruno Banani became the first Tongan to compete at a Winter Olympics, placing 32nd in men’s luge. He was later the subject of a documentary.

Banani gained fame starting in early 2012, when the story of his name was widely publicized. Banani’s real name is Fuahea Semi, but he changed it to the name of his German clothing sponsor as a marketing ploy.

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VIDEO: Shaun White scores perfect 100 to qualify for Olympics

I raced through 5 countries in the last 24hrs to try and get to my race in Croatia. I sat in a taxi for 6 hrs driving through Armenia into Georgia in the middle of the night. I sat on the front seat of the @turkishairlines plane, sprinted through the airport and snuck through the business class fast transit lane and somehow managed to arrive at the gate 15 min before departure for my flight to Croatia. Once there I found that @turkishairlines had shut the gate early even after their delayed initial flight from Georgia, leaving me stranded. After remembering a scene from a James Bond movie, I pressed all the buttons on the aerobridge door to see if I could somehow open it and sprint down to the connecting flight, unfortunately that didn’t work, and luckily I didn’t get arrested. So here I am sitting at Istanbul airport missing the race that could have possibly gotten me to the Olympics. It was always going to be a long shot but I had to give it a shot and I did. Soo many times in life we will get disappointed. When this happens I have two options. I can sit on that chair crying about what could have been and how unfair life is…. or I can go and find some good quality chocolate, pull out my notepad and start planning “what’s next”— I always did like chocolate…

A post shared by Pita Taufatofua (Pita T) (@pita_tofua) on