Pyeongchang (South Korea) (AFP) – American snowboarding superstar Shaun White produced a gnarly display of acrobatic skills to top halfpipe qualifying in Pyeongchang and send a chilling warning as he chases a third Olympic title.
The 31-year-old, who swept to gold at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Games, limbered up with a score of 93.25 points before tearing it up on his second run with a 98.50 that brought gasps from the packed crowd.
By far snowboarding’s biggest star, White helped put the hipster sport on the map when his long red locks earned him the nickname “Flying Tomato”.
But after failing to win a medal in Sochi four years ago, White arrived in South Korea sporting a shorter, slicked-back look — more boy band than grunge rocker.
He is also determined to show snowboarding’s next generation that he is no spent force after scoring a controversial perfect 100 in Colorado last month that sparked accusations of favouritism towards the American.
“Oddly enough I was a little nervous,” White told reporters after edging Australia’s Scotty James for the honour of dropping in last in Wednesday’s three-run final.
“There is such a build-up to get to the Olympics, people forget you have to qualify. I still had to put that run down, but it took the pressure off.”
Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, who won silver in Sochi and is tipped as an outside bet to snatch gold in Pyeongchang, posted the third-best score.
“I didn’t want to take any risks in qualifying,” said the 19-year-old.
“All I had in mind was to play it safe and get through.”
After watching young compatriot Chloe Kim take gold in the women’s halfpipe earlier on Tuesday, White was in no mood to settle for second best — as his electrifying second descent proved.
After soaking in the applause, he said: “I started seeing everybody putting together these great runs and I figured I would just step it up.”
All eyes will be on the top three in the final, while White had some words of advice for Japanese shredder Hirano, who won last month’s Winter X Games.
“I’ve watched Ayumu since he was 13,” he smiled.
“They were saying that he would be the next Shaun White — as a small kid. That’s a lot of pressure to live up to.
“But I’m still here!”