When Canadian snowboarder Sebastien Toutant got to the bottom of the hill Tuesday, one of the first questions he faced from a U.S. TV network reporter was whether he had seen Shaun White.
Toutant’s answer had two parts – and a mountain of subtext.
Yes, he had seen the superstar American snowboarder. But, no, the Canadians are not in awe.
“Yeah, I’ve seen everyone,” the Montreal-born Toutant said. “I mean, I’m not more afraid of Shaun than anyone else.”
But the question is: How afraid of the world’s best snowboarder is the rest of the world?
There’s no denying White’s hold over the sport. He took gold at the Turin Games in 2006, and again at Vancouver in 2010, and there are no signs his bag of aerial tricks is anywhere near empty as he morphs into one of snowboarding’s grizzled veterans at 27.
But the Sochi Olympics present a new challenge for White, and an equally new opportunity for rival snowboarders to knock him off the top of the podium.
Both White’s gold medals came in the halfpipe, the bread and butter of snowboarding. But the new slopestyle event, where boarders combine speed, jumps, tricks and execution over mixed terrain, is a clean slate for everyone involved. And that has Toutant and teammate Mark McMorris of Regina feeling pretty good.
“The Canadians – we are the guys to beat,” Toutant said. “I think everyone here has a chance to win it. That’s the beauty of slopestyle, everyone has the tricks to win it. It’s all going to come down to who can stay on their feet.”
But staying on their feet will be one of the challenges for snowboarders in Sochi. The slopestyle course is not an easy one. Some boarders complained after early training runs that the jumps were too steep, forcing organizers to smooth down a few treacherous parts. Two athletes have been hurt, including Norwegian medal threat Torstein Horgmo, who broke his collarbone and is now out of the Games.
Toutant joked the jumps were like leaping from a building.
Not surprisingly, when White arrived at the bottom after his training run, all eyes turned to him. What did he think?
“It’s little intimidating,” White said of the course. “Any time you show up to a course you have to learn the speed, the distance for the jumps, what the rails are like. It’s been a challenge.”
However, his response didn’t indicate he was too worked up with concern. Though White jammed his wrist on a fall, it wasn’t a serious injury.
After the controversy over Horgmo’s injury, had White condemned the course, panic would have spread quickly among Sochi organizers. What White says matters, since he draws the most TV cameras, and arguably commands the most respect internationally.
Instead, White indicated he was more focused on winning the new event. “Just like everyone, I’m going to lay down my best run, try to win this thing. We’ve got a few more days of practice so we’ll see how it goes.”
White has come to these Winter Olympics looking different than he did in 2010, where his long wavy red hair personified his Flying Tomato nickname. Having trimmed his famous locks a while ago, he looks as if he’s shown up to Sochi for a job interview.
“It’s so much better. I used to kind of have to put it back some way so it wouldn’t fly in my face when I was doing my tricks,” White said. “The odds of having better helmet hair afterward are greater now.”
No longer the teenager who took Turin by storm as a 19-year-old, these Games are all about the experience for White, and a possible double gold medal in the slopestyle and halfpipe. Even as some athletes fretted publicly in recent weeks about bringing their family members due to security concerns, White brought a large contingent to Russia.
“My mom, my dad, brother and sister – most of the crew is here,” he said. “They don’t really come to all the events any more,” but they weren’t about to miss the Sochi Olympics.
“I’ll never forget the first time I won the Olympics [in Turin], I was 19, and I got to the bottom, everyone’s crying. It’s like when your dad cries, it’s pretty intense – the dad cry,” White said. “I’m happy to bring them all out again.”
Toutant and McMorris will be looking to spoil White’s party.
“Everybody that’s here has a chance to win a gold medal,” Toutant said. “I think everyone’s going to go for it.”