Sochi Olympics: Shaun White embraces the challenge of maintaining his status

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The question hovers over Shaun White — not so much the way a black cloud might linger but more like a whiff of smoke he casually can bat away.

What if he’s not good enough?

Instead of avoiding those sort of conundrums, the world’s best snowboarder pursues them.

—On the halfpipe, where he spent the better part of a year trying a trick he couldn’t master but nonetheless emerged a favorite for a third straight Olympic gold.

—On the slopestyle course, where he eagerly took up the challenge presented by the Olympic overlords, who gave him a chance to win not one, but two, gold medals in Sochi.

—Even on the concert stage — with a guitar in his hand — where White and his band will soon tour the country to promote their newly released album.

Much as they watch him do tricks on the mountain, fans will come to listen to the superstar play and see if he can make it as a rocker. Part of the thrill is knowing there’s at least a chance that he cannot.

“I like it. I like the fact that these things are there,” the 27-year-old action sports icon tells The Associated Press.

White heads to Sochi as arguably the most famous athlete competing: “It’s going to push me to do things I never would’ve done before,” he says.

White concedes there’s more at stake this time — that he’s had to grow up since the last time he hit the grand stage, in Vancouver four years ago.

Back then, he had the gold medal wrapped up with one run left — the so-called victory lap that meant nothing. White used it to stomp his biggest trick, the Double McTwist 1260. It was one of the most electric moments of the Olympics: Totally unnecessary as far as the scoreboard went. But an absolute necessity as far as he was concerned.

“I’ve got to imagine he did it for himself, for everyone else, for the sport,” says Jake Burton, the godfather of snowboarding and one of White’s first key mentors. “He’s got very high expectations for himself. I think the progression of the sport is one of the things he expects of himself.”

Along those lines, White spent several months, starting in the spring of 2012, trying a triple cork — three head-over-heels flips. Nobody had ever done it in a halfpipe, and White couldn’t either.

Yet he didn’t recoil from releasing an unflinching portrayal of that setback in a self-produced documentary — a story that ends with a success: White’s co-opting, then improving upon, a 1440-degree spinning jump that one of his key rivals, Iouri Podladtchikov, pulls off first. Podladtchikov, aka the “I-Pod,” named it the “Yolo.”

“That’s the biggest compliment I could ever get in the sport,” Podladtchikov says.

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