BONGPYEONG, South Korea — By the time it was Shaun White’s turn to enter the halfpipe, 28 other riders had wrapped up both qualification runs, and White had nothing to prove, really. There was no medal on the line in Tuesday’s qualification round, and his spot in the finals was secured by his initial impressive spin through the pipe.
But he couldn’t help himself. The others had gone so big, and he’d been waiting four years to erase and replace that painful memory from the 2014 Olympics.
“I knew I had it in me and I watched these guys put in these amazing runs and it fired me up,” he said. “I just wanted to show, this is what I’ve been doing my entire life and I’m here to put it down.”
White put on a dazzling, dizzying show that erased any doubts about which snowboarder is competing with a target on his back. After all these years, it’s still White, competing in his fourth Winter Games. His score of 98.25 threw the crowd at the Phoenix Snow Park into a frenzy and put the other riders on notice that even though they haven’t seen much of White these past few years, he looks more like the guy who won Olympic gold in 2006 and ’10, not the one who was a disappointing fourth in Sochi.
White, 31, was the last rider in the pipe on Tuesday and had the benefit of seeing just how competitive this year’s field is. All of the riders — particularly the top five qualifiers — set a high bar on the opening day of the competition, and they know there’s only thing left to do: fly as high over it on Wednesday, flipping and spinning as many times as possible.
“Everybody’s shredding,” said American Jake Pates, one of four U.S. riders to make the 12-man finals. “The Olympics is a big deal, so I think everybody just wants to send their hardest stuff and go as big as they can. It’s always crazy to see what goes down.”
The halfpipe qualifying had a surprising amount of one-upmanship. Japan’s Ayumu Hirano topped White’s first run by posting a score of 95.25. Australia’s Scotty James quickly bested it with a 96.25. Both felt like haughty marks until White dropped into the pipe.
“Dude’s always going big,” said American rider Ben Ferguson. “It’s kind of what you expect almost.”
The strategy in qualifying is usually simple: Put together a run that’s good enough to punch a ticket into the finals. Riders keep the bar low enough so they can easily top it the next day, setting a baseline of sorts of themselves and judges.
“Most of the field saves a bunch of tricks for finals, just kind of tries to get one down in qualities,” Pates said. “But today a bunch of people put down really good runs in the first run.”
Each succeeding rider took note. Certainly White did. But before it was his turn, he saw one of the most talented Olympic fields give a small preview of what the medal round will hold. Hirano, who took silver four years ago, even pulled out back-to-back double cork 1440s, a move that could differentiate him from the field — unless White tries to match it.
“I think it’s to be expected,” Australia’s Scotty James said of the opening day’s big runs. “The Olympics, this is where the level of riding is gonna be really high.”
James will help show just how high. He’ll almost surely attempt a switch backside double cork 1260 — three-and-a-half rotations with a blind entry and landing. He’s the only rider who can land the technically difficult trick and it could be the difference between a podium and disappointment.
The opening-day degree of difficulty surprised some riders. They’ve been through some qualifying events with nearly twice as many competitors, all battling for a prized spot in the finals.
“It was actually sort of an easier qualifying — [that’s what] we were thinking,” said Chase Josey, who posted an 83.75, the seventh-highest qualifying score. “Then everybody was absolutely shredding. So it really wasn’t easy by any means.”
A lot of riders didn’t know what to make of the early runs, particularly the first-timers to the sport’s biggest stages. Pates and Josey both fell on their initial runs. Ferguson posted the day’s fourth-highest score — 91.0 — but said it wasn’t as easy as he made it look.
“A lot of more nerves flying around up there,” he said. “This is a big ol’ show. Dudes are definitely a little stressed out and definitely want to put down runs.”
He doesn’t think that will be an issue Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET Tuesday). No rider can afford to keep anything in his back pocket. “Just got to go higher, be smoother and put a little extra sauce on there,” Ferguson said. If they can’t, as White learned in Sochi, the bad taste will linger.
“I feel night and day — physically and mentally — from Sochi,” White said following Tuesday’s runs, “and I think there was a little bit of that shining through today.”