Shaun White gears up for snowboarding comeback
ASPEN, CO - About a dozen Winter X Games stars - more than a few of them owners of Olympic gold medals - were milling about the tent before the action began.
Only one drew a crowd.
Now 28 and coming back after the most humbling year of his life, White will be a multimillionaire megastar regardless of whether he wins or loses Thursday night, when he drops into the halfpipe for his first competitive trip since the disappointments of 2014.
But behind the clothing lines, the guitar, the new life as an event promoter and those 1.46 million Twitter followers is one, simple fact: White wouldn't have any of that if he wasn't great on that snowboard.
He doesn't want that to change - one reason he finds no use dwelling on his less-than-successful year.
"I guess, going forward, yeah, why look back?" White said. "I definitely learned some lessons and definitely feel better off than before, in a way. I think that, for me, it was a learning experience and I'm pumped to be riding still."
The inevitability that White brought to almost every contest he entered was washed away last year, with a series of injuries, falls, withdrawals and, finally, that fourth-place finish on the halfpipe that pushed the snowboarding world off its axis at the Sochi Olympics.
"He wasn't happy about it," said his coach, Bud Keene. "Such is the risk you take when you put on a bib and lay it on the line. His career is far from over, athletically. He's still, hands down, the best halfpipe rider in the world, and not by a small margin."
For the first time since he won his first Winter X gold in 2003, there are some people who would argue that.
White's chance to end - or at least stall - that discussion comes at the event where he brandished his reputation with eight gold medals on the halfpipe, five more in slopestyle. (He has another two golds in X Games skateboarding.)
But for the first time in a while, it matters who else is in the field.
-There's the Olympic champion, Iouri Podladtchikov - the iPod - whose invention of the 1440-degree Yolo spin, along with his ability land it in Russia when White could not, rewrote the book on 2014.
-There are high-flying and technically precise Ayumu Hirano and Taku Hiraoka of Japan, who took silver and bronze in Russia last year, proving, if nothing else, that they could outscore White on any given day.
-And there's the defending champion here, Danny Davis, who conceded after his win last year that it took a little of the thrill away because White had chosen not to attend while he prepared for the Olympics.
Davis also struggled on that mushy halfpipe in Russia last year, falling on both his runs in the finals and finishing 10th.
"Some guys landed and rode well. Others didn't. That's just the way it goes," Davis said.
But the stakes, especially away from the halfpipe, are nowhere near as high for Davis, or iPod, or anyone, as they are for White.
Such is the nature of celebrity.
Before Wednesday's news conference, White posed for the most pictures and signed the most autographs, frequently handing his cup of hot tea off to a friend so he could grab a pen. When the questions started, he drew the most interest, fielding queries on topics that ranged from Russia, to fashion, to music, to his hair, to his pre-competition rituals.
"Currently, I don't have too many," he said of the rituals. "Yeah, when there's a lot of contests, that's when it happens."
But between business, music and, yes, practice, there haven't been a lot of contests lately - or any - which makes Thursday's runs down the halfpipe that much more intriguing.
He may have wiped away the past. A win might help his millions of fans do it, too.
"I guess in my mind, in some way or another, I've kind of scratched it off," he said. "It was a frustrating circumstance for me. In hindsight, you can always look back and question what you did. That was the beauty of being in the hunt of it."
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