By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Like a lot of snowboarders, Fisher wasn't sure his sport really had an Olympic future.
Four years later, the American team swept the men's halfpipe competition at the Salt Lake City Winter Games with Powers on top alongside Danny Kass and Jarrett Thomas. By the time White won the gold in 2006, Olympic snowboarding had gone from an international punchline to one of the Winter Games' marquee events. NBC, also a partner in the Winter Dew Tour, is now throwing its full weight behind the sport and plans to air the men's halfpipe finals live in prime time on February 17, 2010.
For a sport essentially in its infancy, the development of snowboarding has been staggering. In 1998, Switzerland's Gian Simmen won Olympic gold with big tricks like the McTwist, a "corked" off-axis 540-degree spin invented more than a decade earlier by skateboarder Mike McGill; this year, some of the top competitors will bring double McTwists to the Winter Games. Imagine that level of progression in any other Olympic event: What if, within the span of a decade, figure skaters suddenly started spinning sextuple axles in place of triple axles, or bobsled teams figured out how to double their pace on the track?
To accommodate the new tricks and keep pace with the advances in snowboarding, this year's Olympic pipe will be bigger, steeper and longer, with enormous, 22-foot radius transitions replacing the eighteen-foot transitions used four years ago in Torino.
According to Ricky Bower, halfpipe coach for the U.S. Snowboarding team, the sport's explosive development is precisely why snowboarding was brought into the Olympics in the first place, and why it has become one of the most popular events. "Other sports in the Olympics have been done for a hundred-plus years, and we've seen most of the arc of what's possible already," Bower says. "Not to take away from any of the other sports, because the limit's been pushed ridiculously far and there's still progression happening, but it's not as exponential as it is in snowboarding. It's a sport with a lot of new energy, and I think it's attractive as an Olympic sport because it really hasn't found its upper limit. I don't dare say that we've found it yet, even with these double corks people are doing."
For all his recent success, the double cork might be Fisher's undoing. Double-corked tricks spin on multiple axes rather than in a linear plane, inverting the rider twice while he spins through the air above the pipe. They are extremely difficult and dangerous; Fisher hasn't even attempted one yet.
A year ago, a double cork in the halfpipe was considered a "video-game trick," something dreamed of but only accomplished in virtual worlds like Shaun White Snowboarding, with a Nintendo Wii Fit board in place of the real deal. But those video games and other technologies have helped a new generation of riders visualize new tricks, and some real-world training developments — foam pits, trampolines, air bags — have made them physically possible.
In February, word went out that White's sponsors at Red Bull had built him a top-secret, $500,000 training facility on the backside of Silverton Mountain, a 540-foot-long private pipe that complied with Olympic specs, with an enormous foam pit tacked on for good measure. The pit gave White the confidence to develop the aerial awareness necessary for complicated maneuvers like the double cork, which he reportedly learned in a single day. White can now do double-cork 1080s so effortlessly that he's landed them back-to-back in the middle of competition runs.
And he's not alone: Half a dozen of Fisher's top competitors can land double-cork variations, some of them consistently enough to chance throwing the tricks in competition. Even Matt Ladley, the eighteen-year-old rookie Fisher has taken under his wing, was sticking double corks at Mount Hood over the summer. Meanwhile, White's moved on to frontside double corks, alley-oop backside double rodeos, switch backside 900 corks and other variations; he's even thinking about what it might take to make a triple cork happen.
Coach Bower was the FIS Men's Halfpipe World Champion in 1999 and is now in the challenging position of coaching his team riders to try tricks he's just begun visualizing himself. He can't do a double cork, either, but he's frustrated by Fisher's reluctance to try.
"The riders all have their own motivation and desire to push the sport as far as they can on a very personal level," he notes. "It was amazing to see, once Shaun did the first double-cork 1080s, how fast it caught on, as if just seeing it done was enough to help everyone else bring it around. It's the most dramatic change in our sport since the last Olympics and even in just the last year. It's a high-risk maneuver, and it's going to be a critical factor to making the Olympic team this time around."
White unveiled some of his newest tricks at contests in New Zealand this summer. He recently told a Wall Street Journal reporter that he'd traveled to the other side of the world to help "educate the judges" and minimize surprises at the Olympics: In 2006, White said, he felt teammate Mason Aguirre was robbed of a medal because the judges didn't understand how difficult the tricks they'd never seen before actually were. That's a mistake he doesn't want to see repeated.