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Shaun White focused on halfpipe gold for PyeongChang Olympics

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The picture on Shaun White’s phone is not for public consumption. His upper lip is a torn-up mash of blood and gristle and bone.

He took the selfie shortly after bashing his face into a halfpipe while training in New Zealand last October. It was an accident that forced him to be whisked off the mountain in a helicopter and into a hospital for surgery to reconstruct the area from the bottom of his nose to the top of his lip.

Though White called it more of a nuisance than anything career-threatening — “I had a moment where I was like, ‘Really? This is so uncalled for,” he said — the rehab was awkward and painful. He needed 62 stitches. A therapist had to spend hours reaching inside his lip and massaging the area to break up scar tissue.

“I’m still waiting for what’s to be learned from it,” White says.

To outsiders, though, it’s easy. The picture and the video of the accident that he recently released on social media serve as jarring reminders about the hurdles the world’s most famous snowboarder has been willing to climb to return to the top, which would mean winning an Olympic gold medal later this month in South Korea.

“The fact he overcame that and even made the team, and made it in the fashion he did, is one of the best sports stories I’ve ever seen, heard about and, luckily, been a part of,” says JJ Thomas, the Olympic bronze medalist who now serves as White’s coach/riding buddy. “It’s been pretty impressive watching him overcome the mental hurdles, from just coming back to snowboarding after that and doing basic tricks, to winning that Snowmass event with a 100.”

NBCOlympics.com: More on Shaun White

If 2006 was his raucous, mop-topped coming-out party and 2010 was where he set down the marker as the greatest of all time, then 2014 might best be described as the Olympics where hubris got the best of him. Clearly hearing the message the IOC sent when it added slopestyle to the snowboarding program, White decided he’d put that event back in his repertoire and try for two gold medals. He spent the entire season injured, rushing back and forth between the halfpipe and slopestyle courses and, ultimately, was unable to accomplish any of his goals. He dropped out of slopestyle and finished fourth in the halfpipe.

When he returned home from Sochi, he watched the thoroughly entertaining documentary of his journey, “Russia Calling,” but didn’t quite recognize the movie’s protagonist.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this looks so intense. I’ve never been so agro before,'” White said. “I got back and said, ‘If I were to do it again, what would I do differently?'”

As it turns out, a whole bunch.

He cut down on high-profile sponsorship deals, the likes of which he used to collaborate on with Target, and has become much more focused on his own brand. His website mentions a grand total of seven corporate partners, one of which is Air & Style, the music-and-snowboarding festivals he owns — and has put much of his own, personal energy into — in Beijing, Sydney and Los Angeles.

He put his once-burgeoning music career on hold — he was the guitarist in the group “Bad Things” — and got more serious about his physical fitness, cutting out alcohol and hiring a trainer and physical therapist.

He parted ways with coach Bud Keene, a main player in the 2014 documentary with whom White teamed to prepare for the previous three Olympics, and connected with Thomas, who serves the role of buddy and compatriot as much as coach. He also brought into his circle Toby Miller, a promising 17-year-old up-and-comer who has injected his own brand of youthful spirit to a sport that is, ultimately, geared toward the young.

“He definitely has a mindset that’s different from anyone I’ve ever met,” Miller says. “He sets his mind on something and doesn’t stop at anything, until it happens. I don’t know many people who could pull through after that kind of accident and do that.”

Though he is driven as ever, the most notable difference in White very well might be the way he committed himself to enjoying the journey more and focusing less on dominating every time he gets near a halfpipe. For instance, with his Olympic spot wrapped up and nothing left to accomplish, he pulled out of both the final qualifier at his home halfpipe in Mammoth Mountain, then chose not to compete at the Winter X Games, which is largely considered the pinnacle of this sport in any year that doesn’t include the Olympics.

“A friend of mine was saying, ‘You’ve done so much, already won the Olympics twice, been a third time, you’re still riding, making podiums, maybe you should try to enjoy the ride and have some fun,'” White says. “I thought about it and I was like, ‘You’re right. Let’s just have some fun now.'”

Armed with that new mindset, White redoubled his effort in the halfpipe. And in the end, one thing really hasn’t changed. He is still the biggest name in his sport, and all eyes will still be on him when the gold medal is at stake in Pyeongchang on Feb. 14.

As if to prove that, White put down a run at an Olympic qualifier in Snowmass that, if repeated, could very well win the Olympics.

NBCOlympics.com: More on Snowboarding

It included a frontside double cork 1440 — his own twist on the famous “YOLO flip” that Iouri Podladtchikov used to win the Sochi Olympics — and closed with back-to-back 1260s, including the double McTwist 1260, a jump White patented and that very few riders even try.

“When I was in New Zealand, I ripped my face open trying these tricks,” White said. “It’s been a long recovery from that to get to this point.”

But to him, every bit worth it.

In an interview with NBC, White was asked which Olympic moments inspired him the most as a child.

His answer had nothing to do with snowboarding. Instead, he brought up gymnast Kerri Strug, who vaulted on a broken ankle and landed it to cap America’s gold-medal performance at the 1996 Summer Games.

“I just remember thinking, like, ‘Why? Why would you do that? What drove her to do that?'” White said. “And my mom explained it to me. This is the top. There’s nothing above this. This is it. This is what they live for, and why they do it and everything boiled down to this moment.

“So, yeah, she was going to get up there with her broken ankle and she was going to jump.”

Only months after a harrowing injury of his own, White will be at the top of the halfpipe, and he is going to jump, too.

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Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 season in ski and snowboard sports

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Most ski sports don’t hold world championships in even-numbered years, but the coronavirus pandemic brought World Cup campaigns to an early conclusion two years ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

With the seasons over, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team is collecting goggles to provide to health-care workers.

Here’s what we learned in various sports:

ALPINE: Mikaela Shiffrin has company 

The U.S. ski star was on pace to win her fourth straight World Cup season trophy before her father’s sudden passing in early February. She planned to return in March with an outside chance at keeping her title, but the remaining races of the season were canceled. Italy’s Federica Brignone took the trophy, with Shiffrin second.

While Shiffrin held a substantial lead in the World Cup before her hiatus, she wasn’t as unbeatable as she was in the 2018-19 season, when she won a staggering 17 times. That’s an impossible bar to clear, but Shiffrin’s rivals made up enough ground to make future World Cup season titles and the career win record seem less certain than they seemed a year ago.

In Shiffrin’s final slalom race, a discipline in which she has rarely lost in recent years, she placed third behind Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Sweden’s Anna Swenn Larsson. Ten days before that, she was second to Vlhova, whose progress impressed Shiffrin. That marked that first time since 2014 that she lost two straight slaloms in the same season. (She was second in the 2016-17 season finale and second again in the 2017-18 season opener, then won 12 of the next 13 slaloms.)

Shiffrin’s ability to get on the podium in any race, no matter the discipline, will make her the World Cup favorite for years to come. But the big prize won’t be as easy as she has made it seem in recent years, and at 66 career victories, she’ll need time to catch Lindsey Vonn‘s women’s record of 82 wins and Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record of 86.

CROSS-COUNTRY: Diggins, Bjornsen stay in world’s elite 

Jessie Diggins will forever be remembered for winning the 2018 Olympic team sprint with Kikkan Randall as NBC’s Chad Salmela screamed “HERE COMES DIGGINS,” but she also has a strong World Cup resume that she continues to build.

Diggins finished sixth in the season standings for the second straight year, a drop from her second-place finish in 2018 but still comfortably in the top 10. She was joined there by Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, who eighth-place season put her in the top 10 for the second time.

Bjornsen led the three-stage season opener in Ruka, Finland, after taking third in the sprint and finished fourth overall, one place ahead of Diggins, who took third in the pursuit. Diggins added four more podium finishes before the end of the season.

NORDIC COMBINED: Norway takes control 

Jarl Magnus Riiber won his second straight World Cup title at age 22, with fellow Norwegian Joergen Graabak taking a career-high second. Two more Norwegians were in the top six Jens Luraas Oftebro (fourth) and Espen Bjoernstad (sixth). 

In women’s Nordic combined, which is on track to become an Olympic event, U.S. athlete Tara Geraghty-Moats was a close second to Russia’s Stefaniya Nadymova.

READ: Geraghty-Moats has eyes on 2026

SKI JUMPING: U.S. women shut out 

A decade after leading the charge to get women’s ski jumping in the Olympics and eight years after teenager Sarah Hendrickson won the World Cup, the U.S. women went a whole season without an athlete picking up World Cup points. Hendrickson postponed her retirement but competed only on the Continental Cup this season.

U.S. women also won two of the first three ski jumping world championships Lindsey Van in 2009 and Hendrickson in 2013.

In men’s jumping, Austria’s Stefan Kraft edged out Germany’s Karl Geiger to reclaim the World Cup title he last held in 2017. Geiger’s previous career best was 10th in 2019. Japan’s Ryoyu Kobayashi, last year’s champion, took third.

FREESTYLE SKIING: Blunck keeps flying

U.S. halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck followed up his second straight world championship in 2019 with his first World Cup season title. Blunck won both events in the U.S. — December’s competition at Copper Mountain and February’s event at Mammoth Mountain. 

Colby Stevenson (slopestyle) and Alexander Hall (big air) were second in their events. Hall won twice, landing a switch left double 1800 to win in the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park. Stevenson also won at the X Games in Aspen.

In women’s competition, 18-year-old Marin Hamill was second in slopestyle, and Jaelin Kauf finished in the top three for the third straight year.

French skier Perrine Laffont had a dominant season in women’s moguls, winning all six regular moguls events and two of four dual moguls, to take her second straight World Cup title.

SNOWBOARDING: Corning wins in Atlanta and in World Cup

Atlanta’s SunTrust Park hosted a World Cup big air competition, with Chris Corning and Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi winning. Corning also won in Cardrona, New Zealand, and took his second big air season title to go along with slopestyle titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Dusty Henricksen was third in World Cup slopestyle on the strength of a win at Mammoth Mountain, followed by fellow U.S. teen Justus Henkes.

U.S. women’s snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Julia Marino won the only World Cup slopestyle events each one entered. Anderson also won the X Games slopestyle.

Olympic and world halfpipe champion Chloe Kim sat out the season after breaking an ankle in March 2019 and enrolling at Princeton.

BIATHLON: Never count out Dunklee 

Susan Dunklee hasn’t had great success on the World Cup circuit since taking a world championship silver medal in 2017, when she finished a career-best 10th in the World Cup, but she once again took world championship silver in the sprint at Antholz.

Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Boe won the men’s World Cup title despite missing two weeks after the birth of his first child, edging Frenchman Martin Fourcade by two points to spoil the seven-time World Cup champion’s final season.

Boe won his second straight World Cup title, as did Italy’s Dorothea Weirer in the women’s competition.

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Simon Ammann ramps up for one more run at Olympic ski jumping

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Simon Ammann, the Swiss ski jumper who gained fame for his resemblance to Harry Potter in 2002 and went to win all four Olympic ski jumps on North American soil this century, has walked back talk of retirement and now says he wants to continue through the 2022 Olympics.

Ammann won the normal hill and large hill in Salt Lake City in 2002. European ski jumpers don’t necessarily get attention from U.S. talk shows, but the 20-year-old Ammann had two things that set him apart. First, his wins were tremendous upsets. Second, he looked like Harry Potter.

He wound up appearing on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” which makes him a wild-card connection in the Kevin Bacon game the peripatetic actor was the other guest on the show that night, and Ammann happily posed with Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick after the show.

Eight years later, Ammann duplicated the feat in Vancouver. This time, he left behind the Harry Potter glasses behind, though he made an enthusiastic walk through the mixed zone wearing comically oversized sunglasses that made him look like the Buggles’ Trevor Horn in the “Video Killed the Radio Star” video, the first music video on MTV.

In 2010, his victories weren’t quite as unexpected. He won the World Cup season title that year, sandwiched between two second-place finishes.

In 2002, on the other hand, he took off from the Olympic hill at Park City having never won a World Cup event. His two wins in the Olympics were his first two in any international competition in the FIS database.

Ammann has also had success in major competition in Asia. He took gold and silver in the 2007 world championships in Sapporo, Japan, the first two of his four career world championship medals. He also won a World Cup event in Sapporo in 2010.

In recent years, though, Ammann hasn’t been competitive on the World Cup circuit. He has been on the podium only once since 2015. Since taking his last major-event medal in 2011, his best result in the world championships was seventh place in 2013.

But he’s already shown he can, like Harry Potter, conjure a surprising performance.

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