The moment Shaun White nailed his first run in the men's snowboard halfpipe Wednesday night, Team USA wrapped up one of its greatest days in the history of the Winter Games. The morning broke bright and cloudless, with Lindsey Vonn out of Vail, Colorado, winning the women's downhill alpine skiing up in Whistler. Later in the afternoon, Chicago's Shani Davis defended his 1,000-meter speed skating title with a blistering gold medal dash around the Richmond Oval. The thrills were far from over.
White, the 23-year-old Californian who is perhaps the most famous face -- and hair -- of these Vancouver Games, was well aware his compatriots had bedazzled and bewildered throngs of fans on this gloriously sunny day. After breezing through his early qualifying run, White caught flashes on television of Vonn and Davis celebrating their gold medals, and then it hit him, as sure as a snowball to the face.
America was on a ridiculous roll here, teetering on the verge of winning three gold medals in the same day for only the second time ever in the Winter Games. Vonn, Davis and White were all favorites, sure, but the precarious, fickle nature of these extreme sports had caused even the most dominant athletes to tumble out of contention, to flame out after one tiny mistake. Nothing is guaranteed in the Olympics, except controversy and sweat.
With perspiration sticking to his floppy, flame-red hair -- no, really, he'd insist later, he was nervous even though he appeared beyond cool on his first finals run down the mountain -- and shaking just a little, White didn't just defend the Olympic title he won in 2006. He soared through the crisp, clear-as-ice Canadian sky, higher than anyone thought possible, twisting and spiraling and throwing back a double cork off the 22-foot wall in a sublime handful of seconds.
"It's history, man," White said. "I don't think I've been this nervous at a competition before. It's the Olympics and there's so much [pressure] on me to do well. I'm glad I had the goods to deliver."
It was that kind of wondrous day melting into that kind of magical night for Team USA. Julia Mancusco, Vonn's rival for years who hails from Squaw Valley, Calif., captured a surprise silver medal in the downhill. Chad Hedrick, Davis' adversary out of Texas, brought home bronze in the 1,000-meter long track skate. And when New Hampshire's Scott Lago, one of the crew of riders who've labeled themselves "Frends" (because there is no 'I' in snowboarding), grabbed bronze in the halfpipe to share a raucous flower ceremony with White, the U.S. bounty totaled six medals in one 24-hour span. It was the most earned in a single day by Team USA in the Winter Games, surpassing the five won on Feb. 20, 2002, at the Salt Lake City Games.
Rocking a white-and-blue bandana that meshed perfectly with his red hair (an outfit as calculated as any figure skater's), White could have done somersaults down the pipe on his second run and still walked away with the gold. But every champion needs a victory lap, and so it was that White, after a bit of deliberation with his coach, chose run No. 2 to wow a stadium already in the throes of spontaneous joy. His gold-medal performance was just an appetizer to the throw-it-all-down show White had in store.
He exploded out of the chute, zipped up the massive structure, going higher, higher, and absurdly even higher, twisting sideways, slantways, and then here it came, the beyond dangerous, spiral Double McTwist 1260 he invented earlier this winter on the private halfpipe Red Bull built him. He has said it's the hardest trick he's ever done, a double-flipping, 3.5-spinning extravaganza that winds him into a human pretzel.
He's not afraid to admit it scares him, this trick. He's banged his head while attempting it in practice several times, and a couple of weeks ago he crashed face-first, his neck jerking violently back, while attempting it in the X Games. He walked away unharmed, but he knows an inch this way or a lean that way might have cracked his jaw, or worse, rendered him a quadriplegic. Never forget, all of Team USA competes with the memory of Kevin Pearce riding shotgun. A few weeks ago, Pearce suffered a severe head injury while practicing the double cork, a cautionary tale to the sport's inherent dangers.
But White's addicted to the risk, to the thrill, to pushing impossibilities. And so he launched himself into the pipe's lip, nailed the revolutions, flipped head-over-heels twice and got the landing in, barely. It earned him a 48.4 score out of a perfect 50, 9.7s across the board, and a hefty 3.4 lead over silver medalist Peetu Piiroinen of Finland.
White let loose a guttural scream, then crashed to the ice in gear designed to look like torn-up jeans and a flannel shirt. He isn't just the best halfpipe snowboarder in the world, or the most charismatic personality the sport has ever produced. He's that rare athlete who makes it impossible to look away. My goodness, with a gold medal in his denim pocket, he still had enough energy and verve to beat his winning score.
"I wanted a victory lap that would be remembered," White said. "I achieved that."
Does it matter if his business acumen and corporate flair have set him apart and perhaps even alienated him from other boarders who'd rather the sport cling to its counterculture roots? It shouldn't on this night, after he wrapped himself in the stars and stripes and talked in breathless spurts about how awesome the moment felt.
In many ways White is the quintessential American story, not exactly rags to riches but his narrative is nonetheless compelling. He endured two open-heart operations before he could walk. He started snowboarding at age six, after scaring the bibs off his parents when he kept trying to engage other kids in swordfights with his ski poles. He's still endearingly goofy, still a legend to teenage snow rats even as he plots to sell them everything from the clothing line he designed for Target to video games that bear his name.
White earned $9 million in 2008, according to Forbes magazine, almost all in endorsements and more than any other baseball or football player not named Peyton Manning. He's America's most recognized idol at these Games (not counting pro hockey players who grace our TVs every night for months), a pop-culture celebrity who didn't even have to pose seductively in a swimsuit to earn magazine covers.
Think any of that mattered as he stood at the top of the pipe, gold medal assured after just one run? U.S. coach Mike Jankowski said he watched as White celebrated, shouted and went a little crazy, and then they huddled together and pondered the elephantine Double McTwist 1260. Of course White would attempt it, because snowboarding at its core is meant to drip with adventure and fun.
"Not much more to call it but a once-in-a-lifetime feeling," White gushed, after nailing the exclamation point to a spectacularly golden day for Team USA.