Wednesday night was another step forward for Olympic snowboarding. The men’s halfpipe competition elevated the sport to another level thanks to Shaun White. But White wasn’t alone when it came to impressing. Here’s five things that stood out to me:
1. The ultimate time stamp: By landing the Double McTwist 1260 on the final move of his final run in Vancouver, White put a nice mark on the level of performance that halfpipe snowboarding has hit at the 2010 Games. He didn’t have to do it. But I’m glad he did because it’s nice when a new benchmark is set on the biggest, brightest stage there is. When you’re getting 5 feet farther out of the pipe than the rest of the field, it’s impossible not to stand out above the rest. Shaun proved Wednesday that he remains in his own league.
2. Two out of three isn’t bad: Coming into this season, the U.S. had a decent shot at sweeping in Vancouver, but those chances were hurt when Kevin Pearce and Danny Davis went down to injuries last month. Both were huge favorites to make the team. That the U.S. managed to take two of the three spots on the podium without them is a huge accomplishment, and I was happy that it was Scotty Lago, a close friend of Pearce and Davis, who ended up there with White.
3. The big hustle: Halfpipe riding is a lot like knowing how to work a pool hall. You really don’t want to let the cat out of the bag while you’re trying to lure somebody into a trap. In practice earlier this week guys were holding back — not just to stay healthy — but to keep any last minute secrets under wraps. But Wednesday the level of riding went through the roof — much higher than I expected. It was night and day from practice, so I guess you can say they had me fooled.
4. The pond is growing: Kazuhiro “Kazu” Kokubo finished in 8th place, but his effort and performance was medal worthy. He put on a fantastic show for the crowd with his chicken-wing McTwist. Unfortunately, he fell on his last move during both final runs that were otherwise perfect. Meanwhile, Peetu Piiroinen of Finland proved he’s one of the most stylish and dynamic riders out there. But what really surprised me was the young Chinese riders. None of them made the final but they did show they’re serious about snowboarding, and there’s no telling what that means for the Winter Olympics of 2014. There’s a lot of snow in China, and I hear they’re recruiting kids into snowboarding from gymnastics, ala Louie Vito.
5. This must be the front row: There were a lot of people spending a lot of time stressing on the condition of the halfpipe coming into Wednesday. The amount of care and work that went into maintaining conditions at Cypress is a ringing endorsement of just how far snowboarding has come in its 12 years as an Olympic sport. I was there in Nagano in 1998, and there wasn’t a lot of concern when our pipe was melting in the pouring rain. To see snowboarding be center stage under the bright lights of prime time during the world’s biggest sporting event is something I thought never possible. But guys like Shaun White take their sports to new heights. Luckily, there’s no sign of him slowing down.