Shaun White is already an Olympic hero and one of the luminaries in the world of extreme sports, but his late withdrawal from the slopestyle competition on Feb. 5 means his result in the halfpipe will be more scrutinized than ever. If he fails to take gold, get ready for a lot of finger pointing.
As White phrased his withdrawal via the Associated Press, it is done out of an abundance of caution, a rarity for a pro snowboarder: "With the practice runs I have taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on."
By "other goals," White can only be referring to the other event he qualified for at Sochi: halfpipe. White will be coming down the chute in search of his third consecutive Olympic gold in the event after claiming the top spot at the 2006 Games in Turin and at Vancouver in 2010.
He ensured the second gold medal on the strength of his first run alone, giving way to a thrilling exhibition on the second run that saw him bust out a Double McTwist 1260 to earn an even higher score.
White owns 13 gold medals from the Winter X Games, including five in slopestyle, although his last one in that event came in 2009. With more opportunities for tricks on the downhill course, there is also a greater abundance of injuries in slopestyle. Plus, White had already jammed his wrist during halfpipe practice earlier in the day.
Understandably, White's U.S. teammates were somewhat chafed that he had waited so long to withdraw from slopestyle.
As Chas Guldemond phrased it per Rachel Axon of USA Today: "There was a lot of guys that I trained really hard with sitting in that fifth spot. It's pretty unfortunate that they missed their opportunity to come to the Games, so that was a pretty big blow. I'm surprised that he pulled out so late. I knew it was coming sometime this year."
As noted by Axon, other riders had referred to White's decision to withdraw from other events earlier in the season.
Teammate Sage Kotsenburg translated Guldemond's sentiment into snowboarder speak: "It kind of sucks that we didn't have four people here."
Guldemond just missed an automatic qualification for the final after coming in fifth in his heat. Kotsenburg and Ryan Stassel finished eighth and ninth in their heat, and all three American men will try to claim one of the four remaining spots in the final as they battle 18 other boarders in the semifinal on Feb. 8.
After the qualifying runs on Feb. 6, numerous athletes admitted the conditions for slopestyle were a little rough despite the sunny weather and high scores, so White's hesitance is not without grounding.
"It's getting better. Not fully perfect yet. Pretty icy. Makes it hard to shape the jumps clean," Staale Sandbech of Norway told the AP.
American Jamie Anderson earned a spot in the finals, but she also admitted to the AP the conditions were harsh: "It's a challenging course. A lot of impact for everyone. Little 15-year-olds are, like, 'I'm not even old and my back is still sore every day. Not even from crashing, just from riding.'"
The course claimed one victim in qualifying, as Norway's Kjersti Buaas took a nasty spill that included a cringe-inducing fall. Fortunately, it appears she will be alright as she took to Twitter to allay concern and stated she had merely ruptured a muscle. She even did the fans the courtesy of linking to a Facebook picture of herself displaying the bandage around her midsection.
Had that been White taking the fall, it might well have derailed his chances to seek a third gold in the halfpipe.
Buaas' crash is a cautionary tale, and with the slopestyle coming first, it's both pitiable and understandable that White pulled out of the event. After all, he is weaker at slopestyle than halfpipe and considers it the more dangerous endeavor of the two. If the halfpipe took place before slopestyle, his decision to withdraw might well have been different.
The men's snowboarding halfpipe competition will take place on Feb. 11 with the qualification at 5 a.m. ET, the semifinal at 10 a.m. and the final at 12:30 p.m. If White does not emerge as the "Golden Boy," his audible in slopestyle will only be criticized even more harshly.