Shaun White Fails to Medal in Sochi: Is This the End for Snowboarding Superstar?

Lindsay GibbsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2014

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 11:  Shaun White of the United States reacts after competing in the Snowboard Men's Halfpipe Finals on day four of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on February 11, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

It wasn't supposed to end this way.

Shaun White, the face of snowboarding, was supposed to leave Sochi with two gold medals. He was going to be the first Olympic champion of the inaugural snowboarding slopestyle event and make Olympic history by winning his third straight halfpipe gold. 

Instead, after withdrawing from the slopestyle competition at the last minute and finishing in fourth place in halfpipe on Tuesday, White is going home empty-handed.

This was supposed to be the Games that cemented White's legacy. Instead, it might just be the end of Shaun White the snowboarder. It suddenly seems possible that the sport that he made so popular has passed him by.

White wasn't bad on Tuesday, but he was a shell of the halfpipe rider that he was in Vancouver. Back then, the wild-haired and energetic White was so dominant in his first run that his second run was merely an exhibition. There was no doubt about it, the gold was his. 

This year, now clean-cut and business like, White was shaky from the start. He crashed on his first run, and though his final run was full of tricks, all of his landings were shaky. He just wasn't the same. Fourth seemed like where he belonged.

Let's take a step back for a minute, though. Despite all of the hype, very few things in the lead-up to Sochi went right for White. 

A bad ankle injury last August started off his World Cup season on the wrong track, and he ended up having to wait until the last minute to even qualify for the Olympic team in slopestyle.

White after qualifying for Sochi.
White after qualifying for Sochi.Harry How/Getty Images

Once in Sochi, White was so uncomfortable with his health and the condition of the slopestyle course that he withdrew from that event, maintaining his focus on halfpipe. Not exactly an ideal way to enter an event.

Through these bumps and bruises, there was ever-present controversy surrounding him. Though White is the most decorated X Games athlete of all time and by far the most dominant snowboarder of his era, he's never really been a part of the snowboarding scene.

MAMMOTH, CA - JANUARY 16:  Shaun White falls during the Men's Snowboarding Slopestyle Final U.S. Olympic Qualification #3 at the 2014 Sprint U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix on January 16, 2014 in Mammoth, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

That scene is one that encourages brotherhood, independence and fun first and foremost. White started his career off as an outsider because he was so young and so dominant. The personal distance between himself and his competitors only increased as he became "Shaun White the brand."

When White announced that he was going to shift back to slopestyle starting in 2012 so he could compete in the Games, his rivals lashed out, calling him "lame." When he pulled out of the slopestyle event, they said he was just "scared." 

As Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports points out, the backlash was a bit confusing: 

The entire thing was surreal, of course, because this enterprise owes White a debt of gratitude. This is one of the biggest nights of the Olympics in part because of his ability to breakthrough to the mainstream masses. The primetime lights and array of global TV cameras here don't happen without him. And forget all the level of sponsorship and prize money in the pro ranks.

There'd certainly be snowboarding without Shaun White. It just wouldn't be as rich and as popular.

Through it all, White took the injuries and detractors in stride. He didn't fire back. He let his snowboarding do the talking. He refused to apologize for his ambition or his success.

And, when Iouri Podladtchikov, better known as "iPod," won the gold medal on Tuesday and White was left off the podium, his Sochi dreams dashed while the eyes of the world looked on, White embraced iPod with a hug. 

White congratulating the gold medal winner.
White congratulating the gold medal winner.Andy Wong/Associated Press

But make no mistake about it: White was crushed. He's a lot more than just a snowboarder, sure, but he's a snowboarder first. Fourth place had no place in his dreams.

As unsympathetic of a character as White can be, it's important to remember that he's an athlete, one of many who have worked hard for the past four years and yet leave Sochi devastated.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 11:  Shaun White of the United States competes in the Snowboard Men's Halfpipe Finals on day four of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on February 11, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Gett
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Now, as White goes off to try and process this defeat, the world is left wondering what is next for the legend. 

Maybe White will continue to snowboard. There is no doubt that he is still one of the best in the world, although he no longer holds that title all by himself. After all, he scored the highest halfpipe score of the competition, it just happened to come during the qualifying round. Maybe this will drive the ultra-competitive champion to become better than ever.

Maybe, burned out from all of the hard work and controversy and bitter disappointment, he'll disappear for a while. Maybe he just needs a break. Or maybe he'll move on for good. 

Maybe he'll focus on becoming a rockstar. You do know that he has a band, correct? White's band, Bad Things, opened on the big stage at Lollapalooza last year and released its first self-title album last month. He plays guitar.

Maybe, he'll go back to the corporate world and continue to grow his brand. He's going to have to figure out how Sochi ties into all of that, though. 

White's brand was built on snowboarding success. High-profile disappointment has never been a part of the equation, until now. 

People are going to say that White lost in Sochi because he was doing too many things. They're going to say that the sport, which is heavy on youth, has passed him by. The competitors and pundits who have bashed him all of these years for being bigger than the sport he helped make famous are going to feel vindicated and vocal.

Maybe they're right. Nobody can do it all, not even the greats. Age catches up to everyone, and for athletes who had success as young as White did, it catches up a little earlier than expected. 

Perhaps, this is how White's story ends: head down, sad, defeated. Or, perhaps this was just a bad day, month and year for White. Perhaps we're about to see a comeback for the ages. 

This wasn't how Sochi was supposed to end for Shaun White, but this is how it is.

Now, we have to sit back and see if this is just the end of his 2014 Olympic hopes, the end of a legendary career or, perhaps, the beginning of a whole new chapter.