KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Shaun White turned to face his coach, Bud Keene, about 20 minutes after he finished fourth.
“You’re all right,” Keene said. “That’s all I care about.”
“You’ve got plenty left in you,” Keene said. “Plenty left in you.”
But how much?
White’s Olympic future is in the air after he finished off the top step of a podium for the first time in three Winter Games.
At 27, he was the oldest rider in the 12-man final Tuesday night at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. Of the 64 all-time Olympic men’s halfpipe finalists, one has been over the age of 28. White will be 31 at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Will he try for a fourth Winter Games?
“I’m not sure,” White said as he walked to his next interview. “That’s the last thing I’m going to think about for a while.” (He had a slightly more concrete answer on Wednesday.)
Another question to ponder: Is this the end of the era of White dominating halfpipe competitions?
“It’s definitely not,” said the new Olympic champion, Swiss Iouri Podladtchikov, one of White’s best friends among snowboarders.
White could very well take a break, tour with his band, chew his brand of gum and come back to beat Podladtchikov, silver medalist Ayumu Hirano and the top Americans. But, at some point, he will lose to the one opponent who is undefeated – Father Time.
We’ve seen his Olympic sports contemporaries dip out of invincibility – Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn, even Roger Federer. One day Usain Bolt will no longer be the world’s fastest man, and that day may be approaching more quickly than one may think.
Snowboarding is not immune to aches and pains, aging and fading.
White won’t use it as an excuse, but he’s cut back on training due to ankle problems the last year. He injured one in August in New Zealand, then the other in December in Colorado. He’s faceplanted, fallen on his butt and given himself a black eye. It adds up.
“I’m going to go home now and lick the wounds,” White said, “and come back.”
White’s next hit will not come in a superpipe but with his band, he hopes. Bad Things plans to go back on tour this spring after releasing their debut album in January. He plans to take his mind off snowboarding by returning to his other sport, skateboarding, too.
But the fire must still burn. White is notorious for his competitive streak, one that seems to run in the genes of sport’s greatest champions.
White said he owes his ascension to the few riders who have beaten him and forced him to fly higher, spin faster and add new tricks.
How much will this defeat pump him up?
“It takes a minute,” White said, genuinely smiling through most of the interview. “It’s not like tonight’s really going to be like that night. But it will happen later on if that happens. Now is the deep depression part. You hit bottom, and you come back up. That’s what happens. It’s competition. It’s frustrating. That’s why it’s great. It’s hard. It’s really hard.”
It’s also hard to say that after one compromised competition during an injury-hit season that White is no longer the same awe-inspiring rider.
Many complained about the slushiness of the pipe, even the Olympic champion. It’s possible that affected White during his flawed runs, or in his head.
“He could continue to compete at the top level for a long time,” said 2002 and 2006 Olympic silver medalist Danny Kass, whom White saw as the man to beat when he was a teenager. “It’s hard to see pipe riding get pushed that much higher.”
There’s also the fact that this was the first Olympic halfpipe competition without a U.S. medalist. The winner was born in Russia and grew up in Switzerland. Second and third were Japanese.
White is arguably facing more international competition than Kass did. The U.S. swept the Olympic podium in 2002, but Kass doesn’t see it much different now.
“You always have good riders, you’ve seen great riders come out of Japan and Switzerland [before],” Kass said of two countries that have produced prior Olympic and X Games medalists.
Podladtchikov called it a weird feeling to beat White, that he had never done it at a serious event before. To that end, he, like everybody else, isn’t quite sure what comes next.
“I don’t want to know what’s going on in his head,” Podladtchikov said.
Podladtchikov asked White to celebrate with him. White obliged and said he would share a drink, “as much as it’s going to break my soul to do it.”
Will it be his last call at the Olympics? We’ll see how much is left in him.
“I don’t think it makes or breaks my career,” White said. “It’s just one night.”