Shaun White cruised through the sun-splashed halfpipe at a leisurely pace, sending sprays of snow at the cheering crowd lining the sides.
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His work finished for the day, White was simply having fun with his final pass through the pipe, an all too customary victory lap. Once at the bottom, he tossed his goggles to a fan and then waved farewell to the audience.
With that, White called it a season, going out in style by defending his title at the U.S. open snowboarding championships on Saturday. He went big in his opening run, holding little back, and only got better on his second pass when he turned in the high score of 95.58 points. Japanese teenager Ayumu Hirano finished second and Louie Vito of Sandy, Utah, took third.
Later in the day, Kelly Clark captured her sixth U.S. Open halfpipe title, the most in the history of the competition. Clark’s electric opening run earned a score of 84.45 points as she edged Hannah Teter by 2.32. Arielle Gold, an up-and-coming 16-year-old from Steamboat Springs, Colo., finished third.
White elected to bow out of future competitions this season in order to squeeze in more training.
With the 2014 Sochi Games so close, it’s time to really get down to work. He has maneuvers to master in his pursuit double gold in Russia. He’s already so good in the halfpipe – winning the last two Olympics – but has some catching up to do in slopestyle, which will make its Olympic debut in Sochi.
White is trying to close the gap on Canada’s Mark McMorris, who’s become, well, the Shaun White of that discipline.
”It’s just a big mountain I’ve got to climb here, going for halfpipe and slopestyle,” said White, who’s from Carlsbad, Calif. ”Before, I would drop slopestyle and just focus on halfpipe to get ready for the Olympics. Now you’re adding a whole other event.
”It’s amazing the talent coming out of the halfpipe and more coming out of slopestyle. It’s a whole different arena. Trying to take on both. I think I need the practice.”
White’s biggest challenger in the halfpipe at Sochi just may be the 14-year-old Hirano, who only gets better with each contest he enters. Hirano also finished runner-up to White at Winter X Games in January, too.
Hirano had a sensational final run going Saturday before awkwardly landing on his last trick. That slip-up cemented White’s fifth U.S. Open halfpipe crown.
”I love watching Ayumu ride,” White said. ”It’s a nice reminder about the sport to me. He’s not the biggest guy out there. I’m not the biggest. I’m not the tallest or strongest. It’s all about your mindset and how you use the terrain. He’s a great example of that. It’s awesome to see.”
Speaking through a translator, Hirano said he was ”stoked” with his performance because ”I got to do what I wanted to do today.”
But it wasn’t enough to catch White.
These days, no one seems to be coming even close.
Scotty Lago had the top qualifying performance and was expected to give White a run for his title, but he wound up eighth.
White even came into the competition a little banged up. He fell hard on his hip and it bothered him a bit. Not that it showed when he dropped into the pipe as he tuned out any pain.
”Just needed to shake it off,” said White, who wore an all-black outfit, complete with denim pants. ”You go into the final, you get all the adrenaline.”
As a kid, White used to test out the pipe at the U.S. Open before the professional boarders went to work. Even then, he dazzled the fans.
That hasn’t changed.
In his winning run, White went with the Double McTwist 1260, the daring trick that ultimately led to an Olympic gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
”That’s the best I’ve ever really landed it,” White conceded.
Now, the best boarder in the world is retreating back into his snow laboratory to concoct new tricks. He’s hoping to get in a solid month of training.
”I don’t want to go practice,” he said. ”It’s hard. But I’m hoping to put some time in and get it done.”
The U.S. Open was held in Vail this season after 30 years at various mountains in Vermont. The change in venue, though, takes some getting used to given the deep roots to the Green Mountain State.
”It was bittersweet to leave Vermont,” Vito said. ”So much history there. But it’s a new chapter and I think it’s going to get better and better in Vail.”