- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Less than 24 hours before Shaun White was scheduled to compete in the Olympic halfpipe finals, while his teammates and competitors were finalizing their runs and polishing their tricks at Tuesday evening's practice session, White went kayaking.
"This was unlike any season I've had," White said Wednesday night, shortly after becoming the first snowboarder to repeat as a gold medalist in the halfpipe. "I fell a lot, I lost sleep. I don't think I've ever been this nervous for a contest or this inside my own head."
So, instead of logging a few more hours practicing a run he already knew he could land, White and nine of his friends, including U.S. snowboarding coach Bud Keene, rented sea kayaks at Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver. Instead of worrying over his run, White and his friends spent the evening before the biggest contest of his life not talking and not thinking about snowboarding.
"He felt like he'd nailed his run the night before, and he doesn't like to ride four days in a row," Keene said. "It gave his legs the day off. We sat in kayaks, watched the sunset and had a great night. It was a completely un-halfpipe thing to do, and it was the perfect call."
It certainly seemed so Wednesday night. After qualifying directly into finals with the top overall score, White watched from the start area as the first 11 riders dropped. Then, as the crowd waited to see whether he would throw the double McTwist 1260 -- a trick White has talked about in every interview he's given since landing it for the first time in Park City, Utah, last month -- White was pondering the same question himself.
"After qualifiers, I had a score of 45 without the double McTwist, so I figured, why not just put down that first run, take the pressure off my back and put it on the other guys," White said. "But I switched my thinking 20 times between the waxing room and the top of the pipe."
His decision to save the double McTwist -- which he recently dubbed the Tomahawk after a steak he ate while in Aspen, Colo., for the Winter X Games -- proved a smart one. His "safety run" was good enough to move him into first place and his first-run score of 46.8 held for the remainder of the competition.
White did not need to throw his second run. He already had his gold medal. Teammate Scotty Lago won the bronze. In the same situation in Torino, the then-19-year-old White chose to use his second-run victory lap to entertain the crowd with wall slashes and airs. But this time, White had a run he came to Canada to land, and he wasn't leaving without landing that run.
"Bud called me out before I dropped in for my second run. He said, 'If you're going to throw that trick, then you had better land it.' He knows I don't always land my run when I don't need to. But I had worked so hard on this trick. I needed to land it. I willed myself to land it."
White's second run not only included the double McTwist 1260, but it was also the most explosive, exciting 30 seconds of riding all night.
"I can't even describe what it feels like," White said moments after the flower ceremony. (He will receive his gold medal, and Lago his bronze, in a medal ceremony at BC Place on Thursday night while the women's team is competing in halfpipe finals.) "I think about how many times I have done that run in my mind, and to land it here feels incredible. Now I can go to sleep."
But first, he will celebrate.
"A bunch of my friends are here," White said, "and I'm sure they have a gauntlet of activities planned for tonight."
Chances are, kayaking won't be one of them.
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.