Shaun White is used to winning everything. On Sunday, he was ecstatic with third place.
Strange as it sounds, the world’s best snowboarder insisted that was the case after he finished in the bronze-medal position at the U.S. Grand Prix slopestyle contest, a key Olympic qualifying event that produced everything he hoped it would.
"This is top-30 finish, top American finish, so I’m very happy," White said during a hurried interview he gave while taking pictures with fans.
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White needed the top-30 to fulfill the minimum Olympic qualifying standard. As the top American, and the only U.S. rider to finish in the top three over the first two selection events, it puts him in the driver’s seat to earn a spot on the U.S. slopestyle roster with three more qualifiers left.
That his score of 90.75 was behind the 1-2 Norwegian team of Staale Sandbech and Torstein Horgmo may have seemed out of sorts to those who are used to seeing White dominate every event he enters.
That the tricks White used for his third-place run wouldn’t have touched Canada’s Mark McMorris, the two-time defending X Games champion who won last week but didn’t even bother showing up for this event, may have seemed disconcerting to those who expect White to breeze to two gold medals in Sochi.
Not to worry, said White’s coach, Bud Keane. To hear him tell it, this was nothing short of the perfect contest, even though it included a fall by White on his second run on a Copper Mountain course slowed by windy, 10-degree weather and occasional light snow.
"This is the road to Sochi, not the road to Copper," Keane said. "We’re keeping our eyes on the prize and we have every intention of winning."
Indeed, that road to Sochi is not so much about winning qualifying events as it is for managing the 27-year-old, two-time Olympic halfpipe champion who has struggled with balky ankles on and off for most of the past two years. His schedule has been doubled now that slopestyle is part of the Olympic program.
A tweaking of the left ankle during a fall on the halfpipe last week at the Dew Tour in Breckenridge "made the call for us" for the rest of the month, Keane said. "We had to do the right thing."
So, White withdrew from the slopestyle contest in Breckenridge and also from the halfpipe contest this week in Copper Mountain.
His priority was this week’s slopestyle, which doubles as a World Cup event — the only one in the United States before the Olympics — in which he needed a top-30 finish to fulfill the international requirement. White guaranteed himself the top 30 by making it through the qualification round Thursday.
His first run in the final, which included a 1260-degree double cork jump at the bottom, made him a good bet for a top-4 finish, which is the first, and easiest, way to make the U.S. team. After that run, White watched from a warming tent, as Horgmo scored a 94.75.
It meant White would have to ramp up the difficulty on his second run to get the win. ”We had intended to bump it up, increase the score,” Keane said. But the second run got derailed when White fell after jumping off the very first rail on the course.
"A little bit strange to see," said American Sage Kotsenburg, who finished 14th. ”He’s always so on point.”
He is, indeed, a man who prides himself on riding cleaner and bigger than anyone, pretty much any time he’s riding in public.
But this is no normal situation, and this is no normal year.
"Shaun’s the best," Keane said. "When you’ve got an athlete like that who’s capable of winning everything, the most heartbreaking thing would be to go to the Olympics and not to win. Managing the bumps and bruises and infirmities is part of getting a winner up to the top of the hill in position to win when it counts the most."
The next qualifier starts Jan. 8 in Breckenridge.
"Now, I get two weeks of practice," White said, as he hurried down the hill to catch a flight home.
Notes: Sarka Pancochova of the Czech Republic won the women’s event and no American finished in the top three. The top-ranked American woman, Jamie Anderson, fell on both runs and finished seventh. … American Chas Guldemond finished fifth for the second straight week.