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Snowborder Shaun White Will Leave Sochi Without A Medal


Snowboarders have a new set of heroes who are not American. Last night, at the snowboard halfpipe event in Sochi, not a single member of Team USA was on the podium. The winners were Swiss and Japanese. Maybe the biggest disappointment was the fourth place finish by Shaun White. He's the American who, for years, has been the focal point of snowboarding's rise in popularity.

NPR's Robert Smith was there and tells us what it means for the sport.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Snowboarding grew up a little last night, which might be like an odd thing to say since the 15-year-old took the silver. But I mean the sport itself matured a little. There was Shaun White, now without his glowing mane of red-hair, looking very much like a tired grown-up accepting that sometimes you don't get what you want.

SHAUN WHITE: I'm happy to take this for what it is and move on and continue to ride. And, you know, put my best foot forward.

SMITH: Like any relatively young sport, snowboarding has been dominated by the people who invented it, who popularized it - Americans. It's like a start-up business run by the same people who thought up all the original ideas. But last night, the rest of the world staged a hostile takeover.

Balancing himself at the top of the halfpipe, Shaun White set himself up for either glory or devastation. He had pulled out of his other sport at the Olympics. He had one shot at gold. A gold, by the way, that would be his third consecutive gold. He had had won the qualifier so he got to ride last. This is all standard Shaun White bravado, except he used to nail those moments.

WHITE: Listen to the crowd as Shaun White fell on his first run.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Shaun White did go down on his first ride...

SMITH: And then landed hard on the edge of the halfpipe.


SMITH: Yeah, this is how you have to do instant replay on the radio. But it does tell you something. Because, for all the technological scoring on halfpipe - points for style, points for difficulty - you can just hear a winner by listening to the crowd's amazement.

Now here's the Swiss snowboarder, Yuri Podlatchikov, known as I-Pod, as he goes into the trick he calls the yolo flip. That's a double cork 1440 - a new move that he has barely perfected.


SMITH: That is also the sound of a Russian crowd realizing that man born in Russia, living in Switzerland, has just captured the gold in a traditionally American sport. And he made it look easy.

YURI IPOD PODLATCHIKOV: I felt like it all was meant to be. It was like really weird. And that I am sort of throwing down my hardest tricks with ease. It was like - it was - there is no word for that.


SMITH: That from a man who took questions afterwards in Russian, English, German and Dutch.

It's now that time in snowboarding that every sport eventually faces: The early champions move on and the little kids from around the world, who were watching closely the whole time, start to take over.

The silver finisher, Ayumu Hirano, is 15. He can't remember an Olympics without Shaun White. And now he beat him easily. I-Pod says you cannot make too much of the rivalry of the passing of the torch. He says that Shaun was, still is, actually an innovator; he pushed everyone else to be more creative.

PODLATCHIKOV: Some other people are like: I don't want them to win. And with me and Shaun, it's like we want each other to win because we are trying things, you know, differently - and feels kind of unique sometimes.

SMITH: I-Pod is a classy guy. But just like you can hear the difference when you listen to their runs, you can hear the difference in their voices. Now, here is the sound Shaun White - a man who is moving into a different phase of life.

WHITE: I am a bit older now and I know where I need to improve. And I know, you know, where to go from here.

SMITH: He says he will take a break from snowboarding, play with his band, refocus. Now listen to the sound of Yuri Podlatchikov's voice. Listen to I-Pod.

PODLATCHIKOV: Yolo flip. Yolo flip means you only live once. Means you guys have to party with me now.


SMITH: And in case you didn't get the invite, this time the party is not in the United States.

Robert Smith, NPR News, Sochi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.