Flipping the switch

The most famous snowboarder in his country is sitting on a couch in the Winter X Games media tent finishing his one interview of the day. That's the benefit of having clout at an event like this: the ability to say no. "I don't do anything I don't feel like doing," he says, his unruly curls peeking out from beneath a dark beanie. Sunday's men's snowboard superpipe final is two days away, but after a long night in the halfpipe, he skipped this morning's practice and slept in. So he's come to Buttermilk for an autograph signing dressed in tight, dark jeans, boots and a gray puffy looking more like a stylish spectator than a rider favored to win the event. All the better to help him blend in with the crowd. Here in the States, that's actually possible.

We're talking, of course, about Iouri Podladtchikov. And in Switzerland, even casual sports fans can pronounce his name.

Here in the U.S., headlines previewing Sunday's Snowboard SuperPipe final are virtually interchangeable with those from the past five years: Can Anyone Dethrone Defending Champion Shaun White? But in Switzerland, where Podladtchikov is a mainstream star, the papers are previewing a different story, with I-Pod as the hero being challenged by the American rider. Can Shaun White Beat I-Pod and His New Trick? And both countries have it right.

White has won this event the past four years and is going for an unprecedented fifth-straight win in the Aspen SuperPipe. He's taken second at only one contest since 2009, when he began learning double corks. And he's undefeated since he began ending his run with the double McTwist 1260, a trick only one other rider in the world has ever landed in competition: Podladtchikov.

But last October, I-Pod, as he's more commonly known, began working on a variation of the trick -- a switch double McTwist 12. That's been all the buzz this week. "I saw it online," White says. "I slow-mo'd it. I haven't seen him throw it in person, but if it's huge and he's got it, then I should be focused and concerned about it. But it all comes down to how well the trick is executed, the amplitude and consistency."

White has a point. Although he feels confident he has the trick on lock, Podladtchikov, who was born in Russia, but moved to Switzerland at age 3, has only attempted the trick one time on snow. "I landed perfectly and my feeling in the air was perfect," he says. "That's all I needed. It's a huge goal to go out there and throw the switch. I'm claiming it for myself because I want the pressure. If this works out and I do the run I want to do, it will be an actual work of art."

The same could be said for the entire SuperPipe final. Sunday night's contest has the potential to be the most progressive in Winter X history. Louie Vito, the 2011 bronze medalist, could be the first rider to throw four double corks in the same run. Matt Ladley, who's still healing a badly broken arm, could become the third rider to land the McTwist 12. And White, who is riding with a sprained left ankle, plans to debut a trick he says he learned in 10 minutes on his final day of training in Breckenridge last week. "He has a new trick," says I-Pod. "But it's not switch."

If those sound like fighting words, be assured they are not. Both White, 25, and Podladtchikov, 23, list each other as the rider they most look to for inspiration and the guy they'd most like to celebrate with after a win. "The first time I met him, at an Air & Style in Japan, I for sure asked him for his autograph," Podladtchikov says. "He was such a big idol." Today, he's less star struck in White's presence, but has even more respect for his riding. "The tricks we're doing are dangerous," I-Pod says. "The switch is more dangerous than anything I do. The competition has gotten more friendly and more respectful because we all understand how much commitment it takes and how dangerous these tricks are." And although they are quite different on the surface -- I-Pod is baby-faced, ultra laid back and media-shy -- they lead very similar lives.

"Iouri's one of my favorite guys because he's competitive like I am, has a great vibe and is always the first guy to come up to me after a contest and say, 'We have to celebrate tonight!'" White says. "A lot of guys don't understand why I don't hang out after events. The main reason is because it's harder for me to hang. With the Internet, it's awkward to be in an uncomfortable place wanting to let loose, but knowing you can't. The other riders don't see me around as much, but it's a nightmare for me just to get through the line to where they are."

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With the Internet, it's awkward to be in an uncomfortable place wanting to let loose, but knowing you can't

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--Shaun White

That's something his peers have a hard time relating to. But I-Pod understands as well as anyone.

"We've gone out together and Shaun is similar to me," I-Pod says. "I don't like to go where everyone goes. I like to explore. It's boring to go where you know what's going to happen and everyone will ask the same questions." He also knows the pitfalls of fame.

"Shaun and I had a fun laugh on the chairlift in Breckenridge last month," I-Pod says. "That morning, there was a naked picture of me on the front page of all the newspapers back home. I was getting so many calls and texts." Out partying with a group of friends at home a few days earlier, Podladtchikov thought it would be funny to get out of the car and pay for gas -- it was his car, after all -- in the buff. His best friend posted the photo to Instagram and a reporter from a major paper in Zurich found it and called Podladtchikov in the States in the middle of the night to let him know he planned to run it the next morning.

"It wasn't a bad picture," he says. "It was just me paying for gas with a hat over my, um, genitals. Most people thought it was funny. Except my mom. My mom wasn't proud at all. I guess I'm still getting used to dealing with fame."

If he pulls the switch Sunday night, it's only going to get worse. So I-Pod, a piece of advice: If you win the gold, keep your pants on.