After Shaun White and Danny Davis failed to make the podium in Sochi’s halfpipe contest, a lot of fans back home were left scratching their heads. Americans invented the sport and have reigned over it since competitions began in earnest in the late eighties. Medals are expected. But conflating Team USA’s failure with the end of the U.S. dominance is a mistake. In a way, America won big.
Snowboarding has become a global sport, but a huge portion of top-level foreign riders still learn the art and science of big air on American mountains. Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, who trains at the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, took silver behind Switzerland’s Iouri Podladtchikov. SSCV’S Nikita Apostol says that Colorado’s mountains are no longer just home to Americans: “The Japanese come out here. The French come out here. The Australians come out here.” Men’s bronze medalist Taku Hiraoka also trains in America for several months a year.
“We are over the moon about [American snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington’s] gold and as far as the men, I could not be happier for the podium,” says Vail’s Apostol. “Of course we always want the Americans to do well – take a podium spot, take a gold medal home – but I’m not at all upset or angry that we weren’t able to get on the podium.”
Part of the reason American coaches greeted the disappointments suffered by White and Truckee-native Danny Davis with equanimity is that the success of a Russian-born, Swiss-trained rider can also be treated as a U.S. victory. The men who pioneered the sport on trash heaps and kiddy slopes near Lake Tahoe were so effective as evangelists for their passion that it spread rapidly and globally. And it stuck the landing. Today, boarders can safely assume that ski mountains in Switzerland and Sweden will have halfpipes.
“There is a worldwide group of people digging on this thing America started,” says Chuck Barfoot, who founded one of the world’s first competitive teams and modern board companies in the eighties after discovering the sport in the Sierras. “Though I’m still stoked to see so many guys from Mammoth and Tahoe out there.”
Barstow adds that halfpipes, which he used to construct by hand, have become bigger and better over the years, facilitating jumps that require an incredible degree of precision and that U.S. Riders have been spoiled somewhat by superior snowpipe construction. “They’re used to perfect halfpipes and it wasn’t perfect,” Barfoot says of the slushy Sochi pipe. As foreign course architects catch up with domestic builders, they may help facilitate American wins. From this perspective, White’s fourth place finish qualifies as growing pains.
In the end, stiffer competition is always good for any sport. And though watching the previously unbeatable Shaun White falter on an international stage was tough, Barfoot – who has a bit of perspective on these things – points out that Sochi is merely a chapter in snowboarding history. “I was proud of the way Shaun handled it,” he says. “He was humble but he’ll be a fiercer competitor for it.”