White's creativity makes him heavy halfpipe favorite
Posted: Friday February 10, 2006 10:56PM; Updated: Monday February 13, 2006 2:31AM
Shaun White, who has competed at both the Summer and Winter X Games, hopes to lead another U.S. sweep in halfpipe.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
TURIN, Italy -- How far has snowboarding come in four years? Ross Powers won the gold medal in the halfpipe at the Salt Lake Olympics on the strength of a monstrous straight air and a pair of 720-degree spins. Powers threw down a similarly spectacular run at the final Olympic qualifier, and didn't make the team.
On Friday morning, two days before the men's final, I stood at the bottom of the pipe in Bardonecchia with Jesse White, a manager for the Burton team and the older brother of Shaun, a 19-year-old from Carlsbad, Ca., who is widely conceded to be the best snowboarder in the world. White swept all five of the Grand Prix Olympic qualifying events, and is favored to win gold here. In his first two days of training for the halfpipe, White has been a cut above the competition, literally, launching himself higher in the air than the other riders, who likewise cannot match his silken spins and grabs.
"There's Shaun," said Jesse, as his little brother dropped in. "His run is just retarded." (He meant that as a compliment). "That was a front 10" -- a front-side 1080-degree spin -- "that was cab ten, to a front nine, to a backside nine." On his next run, Shaun stuck a backside 1080 on his final hit -- a move, according to Jesse, that his little bro only broke out recently, and one which only one other rider in the world has landed. (He declined to identify the other guy.)
When the session was over, the buzz around the pipe was that Mathieu Crepel, a French rider, had become the first snowboarder ever to land a 1440-degree rotation. You're starting to see more and more of that from of the better European riders: multiple spins -- "like figure skating" says American rider Danny Kass -- but without the grabs that traditionally characterize snowboarding's tougher moves (and give it some of its colorful names: stalefish, tailgrab, seatbelt, roast beef).
While an amazing feat, the 1440, as executed by Crepel, is not as likely to score as well as the backside 1080 thrown down by White, who refuses to break out a trick in competition until it is perfect. While White is all about style, Crepel's spin was a frantic, herky-jerky series of spins executed without grabbing the board -- "like a guy working a hula hoop," said Mark Sullivan, the publisher of Snowboard magazine.
Jesse again: "The core ethics of snowboarding are creativity and style: how long you grab, how original you make things look." Crepel and the other pirouette artists are "spinning to get the rotation, to get the points, but not spinning to try to push the sport."
"Shaun could go up there and do some of that ballerina stuff -- spinning without grabbing -- and do it better than those other guys are doing it," says Burton team director Rene Hansen. But he'd just be going for points, Jesse added. "He wouldn't be pushing the sport."
Why is it so important to grab your board while doing tricks? "It connects the sport to skating and surfing," says Jake Burton, the godfather of this sport, who started the snowboarding company that bears his name. "If you look at Shaun or [fellow Americans] Mason Aguirre or Danny Kass -- their spins are pure, they're holding their grabs. That's snowboarding, not gymnastics applied to snowboarding."
This will be something to keep an eye on Sunday, the day of men's qualifiers and finals. (The women's qualifiers and finals are the next day). Snowboarders still chafe at being governed by the Federation Internationale de Ski -- run by those natural enemies of shredders, skiers -- and still don't fully trust the judges the FIS sends to preside over their events. If the judges decide they're more impressed by a no-grab 1440 than a backside 1080, then the American riders could be in for some heartbreak.
Unlikely, thinks Burton. "I don't know who's got more talent, who's more competitive, or who's having more fun [than White]. And that's what makes him, at this point, unbeatable."
On Sunday, until we find out whether Burton was spot on, or just throwing out some positive spin.