ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — Shaun White had a front-row seat to what the next generation can do after he pushed the limits of snowboarding for more than a decade.
In White’s farewell performance on Friday, Ayumu Hirano of Japan won an elusive Olympic gold in the halfpipe with a boundary-pushing run of his own.
There was no doubt about the winner after Hirano’s electric performance as the last rider to go. His run featured what is now the gold standard of halfpipe riding, the triple cork — three head-over-heels flips that was once thought impossible. Hirano’s score of 96 reflected that, and the two-time Olympic silver medalist moved past Scotty James of Australia, whose top score in the three-run final was 92.50.
Jan Scherrer of Switzerland took bronze.
White finished in fourth place as he fell on the final run of a career that’s seen the American star win three Olympic titles. He lifted up his goggles and waved to the crowd on his way down the halfpipe. He was in tears as the sparse crowd bid adieu to the 35-year-old and fellow riders lined up to hug him.
“I’m honored to be here,” White said. “I’d like to thank the competitors for crushing it, and putting me in my place, this old guy hanging on.
“It’s my last day ever. It’s so weird to say.”
What a final farewell, though — watching the gravity-defying, make-you-dizzy spinning run of Hirano as he came through in the clutch, just like White used to do.
“He took a page out of my book,” White said. “It’s not easy to be the last one to put it down.”
For that, Hirano paid tribute to — who else? — White.
“He’s always showing me things I can’t experience yet,” Hirano said. “He’s always been my motivation.”
The stage was being set for criticism and controversy after the second run. James took over the lead with his second attempt, which scored a 92.50. Hirano followed with a did-you-see-that run that included the triple cork as part of his intricate and unprecedented series of flips and spins that’s elevated a sport obsessed with progression to new heights. But the judges gave him a 91.75, which drew boos from the crowd and sent social media buzzing.
“I know when I’ve seen the best run that’s ever been done in the halfpipe. ... It’s a travesty to be completely honest with you. I’m irate,” NBC snowboard analyst Todd Richards said. “What’s the point of doing the triple cork, this most dangerous of dangerous tricks if you’re not getting rewarded?”
No worries. The 23-year-old Hirano just went out and did an even better version of his run. And this time, it was rewarded.
“Justice,” Richards said.
Hirano had a power motivator on his side — annoyance.
“I wasn’t able to accept the second run’s score,” Hirano said. “But I managed to express my anger well at the end.”
First-run leader Taylor Gold of the United States finished fifth.
The competition belonged to Hirano. But the moment also was a chance for White to say so long to a sport he’s hovered over for so long. He said before the start of the Beijing Games this would be his final hurrah.
White’s resume speaks for itself: Olympic gold in ’06 and defense of it four years later. He also won in ’18, where he put down back-to-back 1440s for the first time in his life to hold off Hirano.
This has been a difficult lead-up for White, who was slowed by a positive test for COVID-19, injuries and training issues. But he looked back at his best — under pressure, too — when he qualified for the final on his last run Wednesday.
White carried it over to the final and on his second run executed his patented Double McTwist 1260 and then a frontside 1260 at the end.
“Shaun White’s legacy kind of speaks for itself,” said James, who wore his patented red boxing-glove mittens in the final (he views competitions as a boxing match). “He’s an incredible competitor and I think he’s just universally very respected as an athlete.”
James shared a moment with White near the base of the halfpipe, telling his idol: “I looked up to you when I was younger, and I aspired to be like you.”
The words meant a lot to White. So did Friday’s epic performance.
“Everyone is asking me about my legacy and I think you saw it today,” White said. “These guys are incredible and hopefully I’ve inspired them.”