Shaun White finished fourth in his final snowboard contest at the men's halfpipe Friday morning at the Beijing Olympics, capping a 20-year career that spanned five Olympics while amassing a contest record that might never be eclipsed.
Japan's Ayumu Hirano, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, took gold by landing the most progressive run in the sport's history, including a triple cork. Australia's Scotty James won silver while Switzerland's Jan Scherrer took the bronze.
While White didn't win this one, he proved he is still one of the best in the world. His second run was big, clean and technical. It included a front-side double cork 1440 and his signature double McTwist 1260 and was good enough for the highest finish by an American rider in the contest. In his final run, White went for broke and attempted the double cork 1440 combo that won him gold in Pyeongchang. He crashed on the second 14, and as he rode to the bottom of the pipe, he took off his helmet and held it high overhead.
"That's it," White said to James in the finish area, tears welling in his eyes.
He had finished off the podium only once before in Olympic competition, in Sochi, but this fourth felt different. White lingered at the bottom of the pipe longer than usual, two decades of memories likely flashing through his mind. As he walked to the media area, the fans in attendance stood and showed their appreciation for a rider who always went for it.
"It's hard for me not get hung up on that last run, I wanted it so badly," White said. "But I'm proud of the runs I put down. I'm proud to be here for my last goodbye."
Because it's not White's wins -- or even his spins -- that made him a global star. It was the way in which he won and the personality he displayed when the contests ended that sold mainstream fans on the rider they used to call The Flying Tomato.
No matter if he was competing at the Olympics or in a Grand Prix, White was never satisfied to simply win. If he had a run remaining in a contest, even when he held the lead, he pushed himself to beat his previous score. He attempted tricks and combos he'd never landed and used victory laps to introduce new tricks to the sport. That drive kept White at the top longer than some of his competitors have been alive. But the losses kept him hungry.
Before the 2002 Winter Olympics, Sports Illustrated for Kids released its preview issue with a 15-year-old White on the cover, certain he'd be the face of the Games. When he missed making the team by one spot, the sting drove White to an undefeated season in 2006, when he finally made his Olympic debut and took gold. In a post-Olympics interview with CNN, he called his gold medal "the ultimate parking pass" and said the best part about winning gold was the free drinks on the flight home. When the reporter asked White, only 19 at the time, to clarify, he quipped, "I'm talking about Mountain Dew, baby."
Suddenly, grandmas in Florida who'd never seen snow nor used the word "stoked" knew White's name, or at least his long-defunct nickname. He made cameos in Hollywood films, hung with A-list friends and performed with his band, Bad Things, at music festivals and on late-night shows. A singular star in a friends-first sport, White was never the most popular rider within competitive snowboarding, but he has long been the most famous snowboarder in the world.
The wins and the spins, though, those earned White the respect of his peers, as did his willingness to get back up after big falls and continue to learn the most progressive tricks -- and do them with style -- well into his 30s. Before his final contest Friday, a global network of sports greats like David Beckham and Kelly Slater wished him good luck on social media.
"To get this bonus round, to be here, see these young guys competing, it's been such an enjoyable process," White said. "I'm truly thankful to be here and still competing and even getting fourth, I'm proud of it. The future for me is so exciting. There's so much I want to do in my life. So much to do, so much to live for, this is just the beginning."
These days, the cute nickname and the long, scarlet locks are things of White's past. At 35, he looks to the future as a snowboard company owner with the potential to support a new generation of riders. That he fell in his final contest run is not how snowboarding fans will remember him. They will remember him, instead, for the attempt.