KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- On Wednesday afternoon, Shaun White dropped out of slopestyle at the Olympics. If I had to wager on sentences I would possibly write while in Sochi, I would have bet my apartment that wouldn't be one of them. Sure, White played hokey pokey with the X Games two weeks ago, but this is the Olympics. And this is Shaun White.
At 2:30 p.m. local time, White and his U.S. snowboard halfpipe teammates were introduced to the media in a precompetition news conference. Not surprisingly, the majority of questions were fielded by two-time defending halfpipe champion White. At first, they were all about slopestyle. White was the lone U.S. athlete competing in both halfpipe and slopestyle here in Sochi, and the size and safety of the slopestyle course has been a major topic of international discussion over the past couple of days. White didn't shy away from the questions, but he didn't tip his hand, either.
"There are definitely concerns about the course," White said about its design. "It's been interesting to see how it's developed and changed over the past few days, and the question is if it will continue to change. Every day, they hold a riders' meeting, they get feedback and sometimes there's changes and sometimes there's not. So ..."
But that was his last remark on the slopestyle course. When the reporter attempted to follow up and ask for specifics on what White found lacking in the course design, press officer Nick Alexakos asked the media to focus on the halfpipe. This was, in fact, a halfpipe news conference. "There will be a time and place to speak about the other stuff," he said. "That all right with you, Shaun?"
With that, half of the raised hands in the room slowly lowered.
The scene was a bit odd. White, a rider not known for speaking his mind about course designs and safety, was doing so again a day after he called the course "intimidating" and spoke up about changes he'd like to see made during the riders' meeting. (This is a typical process in slopestyle; jump sizes and angles often change over the course of practices, as designers work with riders, and rarely does a course please everyone. Canadian riders Mark McMorris and Max Parrot called the slopestyle jumps "awesome.") Also odd was that Alexakos had made the exchange so personal. Perhaps it had been decided before the conference that since White would field the majority of questions anyway, slopestyle talk would simply take more time away from the other seven halfpipe athletes.
Throughout the news conference, White seemed distracted and, for lack of a better word, different. When asked if he placed more importance on defending his halfpipe gold medal, he said yes. He has been answering this question since slopestyle was added to the Olympic roster, and as hard as people have tried to steer him toward that "yes" answer in the past, he used to talk about placing equal importance on both events and his goal to win two gold medals in Sochi. On Wednesday, his answer changed. At least his public answer.
When White was asked about how he would deal with his schedule on Saturday (he would have competed in the slopestyle semifinals and finals on the same day as the first halfpipe practice), he fumbled and half-answered the question, talked in circles and then said he was still "mulling over what to do."
Moments after the news conference ended, White released a statement through one of his publicists to the "Today" show that he would be dropping out of slopestyle. U.S. Snowboarding confirmed the news via a release that had clearly been prepared earlier in the day, if not on Tuesday, despite the fact that it made a point of stating twice that White had made his decision "late in the day on Wednesday."
White's full statement: "After much deliberation with my team, I have made the decision to focus solely on trying to bring home the third straight gold medal in halfpipe for Team USA. The difficult decision to forego slopestyle is not one I take lightly as I know how much effort everyone has put into holding the slopestyle event for the first time in Olympic history, a history I had planned on being a part of. However, with the practice runs I have taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympic goals on."
(A release like this takes much longer than 30 minutes to put together, especially considering it included quotes from USSA snowboarding and freeski director Jeremy Forster and USOC chief communications officer Patrick Sandusky.)
But it was surprising news nonetheless. I remember White once telling me his favorite thing is to show up to a halfpipe or slopestyle competition when the weather is bad, or the pipe is cut poorly, or everyone is complaining about the course -- because that's when he shines. Everyone has to ride the same course and drop into the same pipe, and he knows he is the best rider on any day, no matter the conditions. He said he smiles knowing he is in a better place mentally than everyone else. In his mind, in those moments, he has already won.
Which makes it hard to believe White is pulling out of slopestyle because he is fearful of the course. Shaun White wins. And in his mind, in halfpipe, he's already won. In slopestyle, he simply chose not to take the risk.