Snowboarder Shaun White fails at Olympics half-pipe gold medal try

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Late Tuesday night, as he walked away from one of his groundbreaking career’s few failures, Shaun White looked burdened.

The big snowboard he carried after finishing fourth in his ballyhooed try for a third straight half-pipe gold medal appeared to weigh him down. The soft snow encumbered his footsteps. And the smile that came so easily in victory suddenly seemed forced.

In the first significant upset of these young Sochi Olympics, White failed to earn a medal in the event he not only popularized but rode to wealth and fame.

Switzerland’s Iouri Podladtchikov, I-Pod to his fellow competitors in the nonconformist extreme sport, took gold over a pair of Japanese snowboarders with a score of 94.75.

The silver went to 15-year-old Ayumu Hirano (93.50), a huge fan of White’s, and the bronze to Taku Hiraoka (92.25).

Though he didn’t say as much, the defeat had to be especially disappointing for White, who had withdrawn from Saturday’s slopestyle to focus on half-pipe, an event he won at the last two Winter Games.

He’d qualified easily for the finals with the morning’s best score, a 95.75 that was 31/2 points better than his closest competitor, Hiraoka.

But White uncharacteristically fell on his first finals effort on a Rosa Khutor Extreme Park course some competitors believed was compromised by unseasonable warmth.

The final competitor in the next round, White needed another dazzling trip through the snowy tube to win. Instead, he slightly mislanded two jumps and the 90.25 it earned him wasn’t nearly enough to vault him onto the podium.

“Tonight was just not my time,” White told reporters. “I’ll go see my family and take time to reflect. I’m planning to go out and play some music [his band, Bad Things, recently released its first album]. I have the tour to look forward to.”

In his two Olympic victories, White had the half-pipe competition sewn up before his final run.

If his defeat weren’t disheartening enough to U.S. hopes for a medal-count victory at these Sochi Games, the three other Americans in the 12-man finals field also failed to medal.

Danny Davis finished 10th, Greg Bretz 12th, Taylor Gold 14th.

“We let America down. Sorry, America,” Davis said.

With Tuesday night’s results and the earlier slopestyle victory of American Sage Kostenburg, the snowboarders who figure to replace the 27-year-old White, the unconventional sport’s longtime king as well as its commercial face, look to have emerged.

“It’s great that America and the world now know there are other snowboarders out there besides Shaun White,” Davis said. “Don’t get me wrong, Shaun’s one of the most talented and best riders out there. But there are guys who are just as good if not better.”

Davis’ comments reflected the feelings of many in the sport. They saw White as someone who dropped into their world only occasionally, whenever all his other commercial and personal commitments allowed.

Those feelings were reinforced last week when he withdrew from slopestyle.

What carried Podladtchikov to victory was a daring trick he calls YOLO – you only live once – that involves four-plus spins. So groundbreaking is the move he created that White began doing it himself.

Before Tuesday’s event, warm temperatures had left the base of the course uneven, its normally hard-packed snow loose and granular.

After several spills during Monday’s practice session, officials authorized that salt and water be applied, hoping the snow would melt and then refreeze.

While not perfect by Tuesday, competitors reported, conditions had improved.

White had trained in solitude for much of the last year but still came here as the heavy favorite. He was trying to become just the fourth Olympian to capture the same individual event in three consecutive Games.