A Simple Fall, A Complex Proposition
“My Mom’s so nervous she’s about to throw up.”—Shaun White
Shaun fell. A confused hush fell over the crowd-a foggy blanket of disbelief. In the stands, Shaun’s dad paced frantically back and forth. The unthinkable slowly melded into a thought: Shaun might not win. He may not even qualify!
“I hate qualifiers. You have to do just enough to get in, but not too much,” Shaun says. The Olympic qualification format is one of the sport’s most unforgiving, and making the cut-the top eight-in round one delivers riders to the final without the “do or die” stress of a second run. Shaun wasn’t so lucky.
“It just kind of slipped away from me,” Shaun told TransWorld. “And I thought, ‘No big deal. I’ve got another run.'”
It was then that Shaun’s reality had a head-on with that of the rest of the world. The crowd was in a collective state of shock. Cameras were everywhere and reporters begged for a comment, an explanation. “My Mom’s so nervous she’s about to throw up,” Shaun remembers.
“After that, I kind of freaked out.” The magnitude of the Olympics worked its way into Shaun’s head. His biggest fear wasn’t that he’d fall again, but that the pipe would deteriorate before his second run. One-hundred-and-twenty minutes seemed like forever, and Shaun did everything he could to forget his last run, to clear his rattled mind, to think about nothing.
He rolled into the starting area warm with stress and stared his next six hits in the face. Shaun thought to himself, “Whatever, it’s just a contest,” and with his helmet but no headphones-humming something quietly-he dropped in and blanked out. “When I drop into the halfpipe, I naturally do what I do.”
What You Didn’t See
There were almost two hours between Shaun White’s qualification runs. Like so many parts of the Olympic process, it was a torturous amount of time for a rider to stay focused … or to relax.
“I was stressing, and all the other dudes were hanging out in the lodge having soup,” Shaun remembers.
While the eight riders who had already qualified for the final rested their legs in the Athletes’ Lounge, Shaun was alone, carrying his board, hiking up a run.
He and Coach Bud Keene had been out riding, taking laps and hitting a roller near the top of the run that led to the pipe. The jump had a steep landing; it was easy to knuckle or to overshoot.
“I was haulin’,” Shaun says. “Halfway down the run, I looked back and Bud wasn’t there.” He waited for a second … for a little while.
“I pictured Bud being knocked out, so I unstrapped and started hiking up the hill.”
Bud gathered himself-his hat and goggles-and rode down to find Shaun in mid stride. The fall and the image of his coach unconscious on the slopes just before the Olympic pipe event had snapped Shaun from the state of contest anxiety he was in.
“That just did it for me. That’s a huge reason why I was so comfortable the next run,” he says.
To Cortisone Or Not To Cortisone
Harbored in a van near the riders’ entrance to the halfpipe venue at Melezet, Hannah Teter ran a hand over the striped pants of her U.S. team uniform, massaging her left knee.
Pain shot from the joint while riding. “It would be like, zap, zap,” she remembers. Swelling and aching set in afterward, and even walking became uncomfortable. With only three days of practice remaining before her first Olympic qualifying run, nineteen-year-old Hannah had a decision to make.
“It’s a huge-ass needle, first of all. And I hate needles,” says Hannah, who’s more of the homeopathic type. But the needle was only part of the cortisone conundrum. Timing was also a factor; to get the best results from the injection, she’d have to stay off her board for 48 hours-leaving just a day to practice before the event.
Hannah called her mom and her trainer back in Vermont. She consulted her coaches, and that afternoon she rode the elevator alone to the U.S. team trainers’ office on the fir floor of the Olympic Village. She peeked only once at the four-and-a-half-inch needle as it bored a hole into her knee, injecting a cool gel.
Faith Takes You Higher
“I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”-Kelly Clark
During a single day, the global perception of women’s snowboarding leapt forward. It was February 12. Kelly Clark-her arm wrapped tightly in bandages because of an injury to the ulnar nerve-launched skyward. Onlookers gasped, and then screamed. What!
It had been four years since Kelly’s gold medal in Salt Lake, and the 22-year-old Vermonter had largely slipped from the public eye until reemerging at the top of a halfpipe in Italy.
“Praise Him,” the song Kelly chose for her second finals run, came over the P.A., and for a moment the Olympics seemed like background noise-only a stage and props for the most capable female rider in the world. Kelly rode toward her frontside wall.
“I’m usually praising the Lord when I go, thanking him for the cool opportunity,” she says.
We caught up with Kelly after the Games to fill in the blanks between Salt Lake City and Torino and to find out what we can expect to see from her next.
TWS: You’re a different person than you were in Salt Lake City. What’s changed since then?
K.C.: My faith totally changed from Salt Lake to Torino. I have a lot more than snowboarding now. Before I became a Christian, I was snowboarding, but I didn’t have much more than that in my life. I was kind of doing it to find my identity or to find acceptance.
TWS: Has it been difficult to balance your faith and your snowboarding from a professional perspective?
K.C.: It was a pretty big lifestyle change for me. But I realize now that I just get to live my life and be open and honest. That’s how it gets balanced-I don’t try to fit any part. I have sponsors who back me for who I am, regardless of what that means.
TWS: What role did your faith play when you woke up the day after the Olympic pipe contest?
K.C.: It was hard the next day, and that night … and the next few days. Sometimes you just have to trust God. I can’t always see the bigger picture and I don’t always know how the little things fit in. I know things went perfectly according to his plan, and I’m okay with that.
TWS: You ended up fourth. What was the result for snowboarding?
K.C.: I love being a part of a sport that’s progressing. I want to encourage girls and push the boundaries of what people think is possible. I didn’t get the podium finish I was looking for but, as far as snowboarding goes, I couldn’t have imagined it any better.
TWS: What now?
K.C.: During the next few years, I may step back and take a little time off, but at the moment, I just want to ride more pipe. I have lots of trick ideas, things I want to learn, and things I want to incorporate into my run: amplitude and style are categories I’m going to work on.
You’ve got eight letters-eight boxes on the order form for your Olympic ring. Like a Superbowl ring, this is the one memento-other than a medal, if you medal-you’ll take home from the Games. It will be one of your most prized possessions. Your grandkids will marvel at it.
The options are easy. Yes, I’d like diamonds (at an additional charge). Yes, if I medal, please replace the word “Snowboarding” with the words “Gold Medalist,” “Silver Medalist,” or “Bronze Medalist,” whichever is applicable.
But what will be engraved into the ring? What do you write in those eight boxes? If you’re Mason Aguirre, the answer is simple, one box for each letter of M-A-S-E-N-U-T-Z.A History Of Gold Medal Halfpipe Runs Nagano, Japan, February 12, 1998 Gold Medalist: Gian Simmen, Switzerland, Hits: 7 HUUUUGE backside air, frontside tailgrab, Indy, frontside 360 chicken salad, Cab 720 tailgrab (and lost beanie), alley-oop stalefish, backside 540 mute Gold Medalist: Nicola Thost, Germany, Hits: 7 Frontside air, method, lien, backside tailgrab, air to fakie, Cab three, frontside 540 Salt Lake City, Utah, United States February 10–11, 2002 Gold Medalist: Ross Powers, Hits: 7
Method, frontside nosebone, McTwist, 720, Cab 720, straight air, backside 360, switch McTwist Gold Medalist: Kelly Clark, Hits: 7 Frontside air, backside air, frontside 540, backside air, stalefish, McTwist, frontside 720 Torino, Italy February 12–13, 2006 Gold Medalist: Shaun White, Hits: 6 Frontside air, McTwist, frontside 1080, Cab 1080, frontside 900, backside 900 Gold Medalist: Hannah Teter, Hits: 6 Frontside 540, backside air, frontside 900, Indy, frontside 360, Cab 540