ASPEN, Colo. (AP) – Shaun White ran his fingers through his short, red hair as he fidgeted in his seat.
The snowboarding icon is still getting accustomed to his new look after recently trimming his signature flowing locks.
Make no mistake, though: His strength isn’t tied to his hair.
His command comes from innovation as he perpetually tries to stay two steps ahead of the competition in the halfpipe, where he performs tricks few others would dare attempt and captures about every big competition he enters.
But that’s not enough. White wants to be just as commanding – and just as feared – in the slopestyle competition, especially with the event making its Olympic debut next winter in Sochi.
This weekend at the Winter X Games, White will show off some of those new slopestyle maneuvers, like the backside triple he pulled off in a practice run Wednesday.
That should get him some attention, maybe even open up some eyes.
See, White is largely viewed as just another competitor in slopestyle, an event where snowboarders move through rails, big jumps and bumps on their way down the hill. He’s not quite as revered.
There was a time, though, when White commanded that event as well.
But that was four years ago and a new generation has since hit the course.
These days, the Shaun White of slopestyle just may be Mark McMorris, a 19-year-old from Canada who has no fear on the slopes and even less when it comes to, well, White.
“Just another guy you’re riding against in a contest,” McMorris recently said in a phone interview.
Don’t mistake that for arrogance. McMorris has plenty of respect for White, even considers him a friend and one of the favorites this weekend. Unlike the halfpipe, McMorris simply doesn’t see White dominating slopestyle.
Not with riders such as Norway’s Torstein Horgmo and Canada’s Sebastien Toutant in the field. Of course, there’s also McMorris.
“Look, (White) is really good at snowboarding,” said McMorris, who won slopestyle and big air last year in Aspen. “But everybody is good in slopestyle. It’s crazy, because you see new winners all the time because the tricks have become so technically challenging.”
White sat next to McMorris at a news conference to kick off Winter X, intently listening as McMorris described the burgeoning rivalry between White and himself. Mainly, McMorris said, it’s a media-fueled thing.
“It’s funny what they make of it,” McMorris said. “It’s a fun showdown.”
That it is, especially for White, who’s enjoying trying to bridge the gap between himself, McMorris and the rest of the field. White is closing it quickly, too, winning a Winter X slopestyle competition in Tignes, France, last winter.
“This makes me want to learn more tricks,” said White, a 14-time X Games champion, including five straight in the halfpipe (Winter X refers to it as superpipe).
With good reason because really, in the halfpipe, White has no one pushing him all that much.
Not right now, anyway.
Sure, he’s working on maneuvers in the halfpipe, but his biggest challenger just may be himself.
However, topping his own performance is getting more and more difficult. Last year in Aspen, White turned in a perfect score.
Asked who presented the biggest challenge in the halfpipe, White danced around the question by saying, “I’m not really looking around.”
“I’m looking to land my run,” he said. “As long as I do that, I’m happy. I usually focus on what I’m up to.”
Since slopestyle wasn’t an Olympic sport at the 2010 Vancouver Games, White decided to take a hiatus from those competitions.
Instead, he trained in seclusion on a halfpipe built for him in the back country of Colorado as he honed the Double McTwist 1260, a dazzling and dangerous trick that ultimately led to an Olympic gold medal in Vancouver.
Now, he’s devoting just as much time to slopestyle. After all, Olympic organizers voted to add slopestyle to the program starting in 2014, which gives White a chance at not one, but two gold medals in Sochi.
That certainly keeps him motivated, especially here at Winter X where he’s by far the biggest attraction.
He has to be creative. It’s expected.
“I show up here and have all the eyeballs on me a lot of time,” White said. “I want to be prepared for that. It’s fun for me to learn new tricks and new things.”
NOTES: White isn’t the only competitor going for a six-peat at Winter X as snowmobiler Tucker Hibbert will attempt the feat in SnoCross. Since Hibbert’s event is first on Sunday, he can accomplish the endeavor before White. “At least if I (mess) it up, you can back me up,” Hibbert said. White quickly countered with, “Or you start it off and I’ll follow.”
– By Pat Graham, AP Sports Writer
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