SOCHI -- Shaun White has shorn off his auburn locks, it’s true, but teammate Danny Davis is there to pick up the slack. While you wouldn’t know it from his star turn as Jim Carrey in a series or recent Dumb and Dumber re-enactments, Davis sports a shoulder-length mane that did not appear to have been extensively groomed when he met with a reporter shortly after noon on Monday.
Sitting on a sofa in the lobby of the vast, brand new Marriott in Krasnaya Polyana, Davis provided brief running commentary on a curling match visible on a nearby television -- “Okay, we’re going into the eighth end; an ‘end’ is like an inning” -- and generally exhibited less than zero anxiety about the men’s halfpipe competition, to be held Tuesday.
“I haven’t had time to get nervous,” says Davis, a 25-year-old from Truckee, Cal., who was more eager to talk about his recent days ripping hip-deep powder in the Caucasus range than he was to discuss the condition of the superpipe at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, which, for the second straight Olympics, sucks.
The walls, Davis reports, are much improved from the first training session on Saturday. The flat bottom -- which is exactly what it sounds like: the floor of the pipe -- is a minor disaster, a “slushy, bumpy mess,” says Davis. Fellow USA rider Greg Bretz spoke more bluntly, expressing the opinion that the only way the pipe might be salvaged is if American-based pipe shaper Frank Wells “got on a f****** airplane” to Sochi.”
Davis struck a more diplomatic tone, saying “I’m hoping they can pull it together, so we can have fun.”
Tiger Woods doesn’t stride onto the tee box for the joy of it, and Shaun White is not here to have fun. He’s here to dominate, and collect his third straight gold medal. His decision to pull out of slopestyle on the eve of the Olympics improved his chances for a three-peat, but smudged his image, ever so slightly. A pair of Canadian slopestylers basically called him chicken. He was criticized for squandering an Olympic berth that might have gone to a fellow American.
That tempest will fade quickly, should White prevail on Tuesday night. Once again, he’s a solid favorite. While he had to abandon his attempt to become the first rider ever to land a triple-cork in the pipe, he has been polishing a double-cork 1440 -- the so-called YOLO flip. After seeing Swiss rider Iouri (the iPod) Podladtchikov throw the YOLO (You Only Live Once – get it?) in Europe last spring, White vowed to make it his own. He seems more likely to stick that trick in the finals than the iPod, a shimmering talent who tends to wilt under the brightest lights.
Conditions in the pipe will be the X-factor. In practice sessions, some riders soldiered through the slush, oblivious. Davis singled out White, Bretz, the iPod, Japan’s Ayumu Hirano and the rising Chinese talent Yiwei Zhang as all riding well, notwithstanding the crud in the flat bottom.
He leaves out one emerging medal threat: himself. A snowboarding paradigm shift seems to be afoot in these games. In both men’s and women’s slopestyle -- won by Americans Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson -- judges made a statement. Gymnastic spins were valued less than the flair with which they were carried out. How creative were the tricks, and were they fully “grabbed”? The same panel of judges will be sitting at the bottom of the halfpipe. Will their new standard, the heightened emphasis on style, carry over from slopestyle to the pipe? If the answer is yes, Davis stands to benefit the most.
He is a huge, and, until recently, star-crossed, talent. Davis punched his ticket for the Vancouver Games four years ago by beating White in an Olympic qualifier. Three weeks before those Games he fractured a vertebrae in an ATV accident.
In August of 2012, he fractured his right femur in a slopestyle competition in New Zealand. You’ll be back shredding in three months, his doctor told him. Three months later, he needed more surgery: the metal rod implanted in New Zealand was too small. “It wouldn’t allow the fracture to settle,” says Davis. After a second operation, he was back on the snow last March. His mission since then: “To snowboard as much as possible. And to stay safe.”
It’s more difficult than it sounds, in his line of work. While he respects the athletes driving the arms race in halfpipe, he has little interest in participating in. “Okay, here’s the front double 10, what’s next? The front double 12. What’s next? The 1440. While that’s great, it’s progression, it’s just not what I want to do. I don’t enjoy it, there’s high potential to get hurt, and I would like to live. I would like to stay the same.” Davis is close friends with Kevin Pearce, a fellow pro ‘boarder who suffered a traumatic brain injury in December of 2009.
He trained at Oregon’s Mt. Hood last summer. Unlike White, Davis didn’t have access to his own private halfpipe. No deep-pockets sponsor was paying to provide an airbag into which to land his tricks. What he did have, he says, was “really fun, slushy halfpipe. And I asked myself, ‘What can I learn in here?’”
“So I started to do tricks that I wanted to do, tricks that were fun to learn. It wasn’t like 'All right, here we go” – he pantomimes a rider hyperventilating with stress – “I’m gonna go upside down twice, and I’m a little bit scared of this, and I don’t really want to do it.'"
He took the road less traveled. Like his fellow maverick Kotsenburg, he honed tricks that judges seldom saw – tricks that interested him, and appealed to the artist within. He worked on “switch straight airs and switchback sevens and switchback nines.” He perfected the McTwist. Yes, he’s got a few double corks in his quiver, and will pull them out on Tuesday. But he’s not a slave to them.
His lack of conformity paid off. After winning the final US qualifier, he took gold at the X Games. He comes into the Olympics with serious momentum, and not a lot of stress. True, he’s worried about the slush in the bottom of the halfpipe. It would bum him out if poor conditions prevented him from putting down his best run.
If the pipe is terrible, he says, grinning, "I may just ride down the middle and pull my pants down."
And that would be interesting, too.