CYPRESS MOUNTAIN, B.C. — Four years ago, Shaun White needed to pull off back-to-back 1080s to win Olympic gold in the men's halfpipe competition at the Turin Winter Games.
In the process, he stunned the snowboarding world because his high-flying run - filled with spin after spin - was so far ahead of curve it left most of the best riders in the world shaking their heads.
Fast forward to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and not only has most of the field caught up to White's routine, but several turned in 1080s in the qualifying rounds on Wednesday, Feb. 17 at Cypress Mountain, B.C. That's something that would have been unheard even as early as two years ago in the sport, but such is the nature of the halfpipe competition, where going big is the name of the game and pushing the boundaries of the human body is the only way to gain respect and sponsors.
For White, the most recognized face in the sport, thanks in part to his long, flowing red hair and catchy nickname 'The Flying Tomato,' Wednesday's first qualifying run was a clinical example of his technical skill and superiority over the most of the world. He easily cranked out a single front double cork 1080, turned in another 1080, and cruised to the head of the class and a spot in the event's final with a score of 45.8 out of 50.
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"I'm saving my hardest tricks," White said after his qualifying runs. "This is a nice one to get through. The last time around in Torino I fell on my first run, and all the waiting and the pressure to find out if I made it through I did not want to do that again. I went down and stomped the run. A 45 out of 50 isn't bad."
This year White went in to the final looking to raise the bar again, this time with a double inversion move called the Double Cork, a back-to-back combination of a Cab 1080 Double Cork followed by a Frontside 1080 Double Cork. Think of watching clothes in a dryer as it tumbles down an embankment and you'll get the idea. While snowboarders around the world waited anxiously for White's run in his quest for a second gold medal, others around the sport worried that the extreme speed with which the sport is progressing and the seemingly devil-may-care attitude of some of its professionals could be setting a dangerous example for recreational riders.
Even professional riders cringed when White first unveiled the new combo trick at the Burton New Zealand Open on Aug. 15. He perfected the move on a private halfpipe built for him with a giant foam pit by his sponsor at estimated cost of $500,000. That kind of training facility is something no other boarder in the world has, but that hasn't stopped others from experimenting. Lesley McKenna, a three-time Olympic snowboarder, told the United Kingdom's The Guardian that the arms race in the sport is on.
"When he unveiled the trick at the first competition of the season, riders rushed to copy it," McKenna. "And if they didn't have access to foam pit that wasn't going to stop them."
With an estimated 5 million snowboarders in the United States there are no doubt plenty of snowboarders looking to follow in White's footsteps. In Whatcom County, with Mount Baker and Whistler both within easy driving distance, the urge could be extremely high to hit the slopes on a weekend and try to pull off some trick that a professional has spent a lifetime perfecting.
"We call it Kodak courage," said Gwyn Howat, spokeswoman for the Mount Baker Ski Area. "You have to be objective about what you can do. But there is peer pressure to try something and then somebody is doing something they aren't ready for. And of course some of the younger riders, especially the teen-aged boys, think they are invincible."
Howat estimates that around 70 percent of the season passes sold at Mount Baker go to snowboarders. Another 45 to 50 percent of the daily passes sold also go to boarders looking for thrills and fun in one of the best winter play lands for boarders in the Northwest. Locals and pros alike know that Baker is one of the sports laidback gems with its historic Legendary Banked Slalom race and some of the highest levels annual snow fall in U.S.
But with the Olympics practically in Mount Baker's shadow, Howat knows that there's a chance some weekend riders could see a spectacular trick on television in the next few days and then look to mimic it at Baker. That's a bad plan, she said.
"These kinds of things like the Olympics and the Winter X Games provide the inspiration for the sport," Howat said. "But it's always a good reminder for people to realize that these people are professionals. They spend a lot of time in the offseason and in season learning their tricks. There's a progression to learning those complicated twists and maneuvers. They have to learn those different elements and be able to perform them consistently before they can start putting them all together at the Olympics. You can't just get up off the couch and do something like a McTwist."
Even when an experienced rider is trying to perform a seemingly simple trick it's important to remember that things can go bad in a hurry. One bad patch of snow or an odd landing can turn a fun weekend into something disastrous. It happened in Oregon on Mt. Hood recently. On Saturday, Feb. 13 a young rider was killed after crashing while attempting a jump. Kyle Cryblskey, 23, of Battle Ground, suffered head injuries and later died after a fall while on an early Valentine's Day trip with his girlfriend. He'd been riding for a decade and a bad spill took his life.
Cryblskey wasn't wearing a helmet at the time of the crash and that's something his father, Joe Cryblskey, has been championing since his son's death. Though it hasn't been determined if the helmet would have saved Kyle, wearing a helmet while riding is one cue recreational riders can take from the pros they see at the Olympics.
"Everybody needs to wear a helmet," Joe Cryblskey told The Oregonian.
At Mount Baker helmets are not required, but they are certainly encouraged. Howat said she's seen an increase in both snowboarders and skiers wearing helmets while riding at Baker in recent years and would like to see that trend continue. It would likely take a government mandate for ski and snowboard areas around the state to require helmets on riders at all times.
"Helmets remain a good idea and something we encourage, but it remains a personal choice," Howat said. "We strongly recommend helmets at our lessons, especially for young riders and newcomers. We've seen more and more people up here with helmets on. It seems like people are catching on."
Even without a helmet mandate, snowboarding remains a very safe sport. The odds of a snowboarder experiencing serious injury or dying while snowboarding is less than one in a million according to the National Ski Areas Association. During the 2008/2009 season there were 39 fatalities reported out of 57.4 million skiers and snowboarders around the nation. Thirty of those deaths were skiers while just nine were snowboarders. Among the fatalities eight were reported wearing helmets.
"It is all about understanding your abilities, respecting your limitations, and using common sense," Howat said. "Those professionals are pushing the envelope of everything. That's what progresses the sport, but it's not what the weekend warriors need to be doing. People start to get into trouble when they pursue something beyond their abilities. When they underestimate the conditions and overestimate their abilities that is when bad things happen."
The same can be said for professionals. U.S. Olympic hopeful Kevin Pearce had a brutal crash in January while trying to pull off White's Double Cork maneuver. It left him with traumatic brain injuries and in critical condition. He suffered memory loss, impaired vision, and must learn how to walk again. Some members of Team USA are wearing I Ride for Kevin patches on their jackets at the Olympics.
Nothing so serious happened to the riders in the qualifying rounds at the men's halfpipe on Wednesday, but there were still several crashes. The worst of which might have belonged to China's Wancheng Shi, who landed directly on top of the lip of the halfpipe from about 15 feet in the air while trying to finish a Frontside 900. He limped away from the crash, but continued to compete.
U.S. snowboarder Gregory Bretz also sported a nasty reminder of how dangerous the sport can be. He had a large scab running across most of the tight side of his face after landing on his head during training earlier in the week. Bretz was lucky to come out of it with only the snow burn.
"The night I slammed I got a pretty good part of the pipe with my face," Bretz said. "That night I was riding a little rough. But I think after that night I've been riding well ever since. I was doing a (Backside 900) and I kind of got thrown off balance and into the wall. Then I Ollied a little bit and went over the nose of my snowboard. It wasn't a very good run."