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USA's Shaun White earns historic gold with high-flying, high-risk tricks

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Four months after he endured 62 stitches in his face, Shaun White landed the kind of high-flying, thrill-inducing runs that allowed him to transcend his sport and earn Team USA’s historic 100th Winter Olympic gold medal Wednesday afternoon at Phoenix Freestyle Park.

The iconic snowboarder even included the trick that nearly ended his pursuit of a third Olympic gold.

“Oh, man, that was awful and amazing at the same time,” the 31-year-old four-time Olympian said after a short awards ceremony in front of a raucous crowd. “I knew I did a great ride, and I was proud of that, and I could walk away with my head high. But when they announced my score, and I’d won, it crippled me.”

Unlike his second gold medal run in Vancouver when he knew he’d earned the win before his final run, White had to endure one of the closest finishes in Olympic snowboard history. He waved to the crowd as he paced, and then when his score (97.75) flashed on the scoreboard, he threw his snowboard and then went briefly to his knees before the 31-year-old known as the Flying Tomato began to sob.

“I was so overwhelmed with happiness, I’ve been through so much to get here,” White said. “I had this crazy injury in New Zealand where I busted my face open. I actually did the same trick that injured me here in the halfpipe today, so there were a lot of obstacles to overcome. And now it’s all worth it.”

White led after the first run, but then Japan’s Ayumu Hirano laid down the best run of the day on his second try, earning 95.25 points, just one point higher than White’s first run score.

White fell on his second run, and then, after every other competitor had gone, and Hirano’s second run score still stood as the gold standard, he did what’s made him famous.

His gold medal run included back-to-back 1440s, his trademark Skyhook and the trick that earned him gold in Vancouver, the McTwist 1260, and ended with a front-side 1200.

His reaction as he landed that third run revealed relief and elation, but then he had to wait for the judges to decide if it was better than Hirano’s run. White knew his run was good, maybe the best he could offer, but he didn’t know if it was good enough for the gold he desperately wanted.

“Honestly, it’s one of the most challenging runs I’ve ever done,” he said. “I didn’t even link the combination, the (back-to-back 1400s) until I got here today. This morning. So honestly, I’m just so happy with my performance. I’m proud of the other riders for pushing me this whole time.”

Hirano’s 95.25-point run earned him silver, while Australia’s Scotty James finished with bronze, earning 92 points on his first run.

Earning a third Olympic championship would be a remarkable feat for any athlete, but consider that four months ago, White lay in a hospital bed in New Zealand with 62 stitches in his face after a training accident in which his face slammed into the lip of the halfpipe.

Two months earlier he’d crashed in training and suffered a bruised liver and hip.

“I just have to thank my team,” he said of the mental toughness it took to recover from the injuries. “They were always there to support me and reassure me that what we’re doing is on the right track, and they believed in me. That really helped me. They were all here for me today. They’re all beside themselves. I’m still shaking. I don’t know what’s happening.”

But it seemed nothing would deter the four-time Olympian, who followed back-to-back gold medals in Torino and Vancouver with a fourth-place finish in Sochi.

He spent some time in the finish area thanking the people who helped him get his start in the sport.

“It’s amazing,” he said, “my family have been so supportive of me this entire time, from the get-go. In the beginning, driving to the mountains, calling in sick to work, getting me to where I needed to be, and now we’re here.”

White’s three gold medals put him second in Winter Olympic success by a U.S. male athlete to long track speedskater Eric Heiden, who has five Olympic gold medals.

“Man, three gold medals,” he said, “my fourth Olympics. Thank you. I’m feeling blessed.”

White is the first snowboarder to win three Olympic gold medals, and he makes it a clean sweep of snowboarding gold for the U.S. with several events still to come.

USOC officials issued a statement after White’s historic gold, which came on the fifth day of competition in Pyeongchang.

“Each and every one of the 100 times we have heard our national anthem play in Olympic Winter Games competition has been a truly unique and special moment,” said USOC CEO Scott Blackmun. “These medals have spanned nearly 100 years and showcase the dedication to excellence that is central to Team USA and the entire U.S. Olympic family. Today the USOC joins our athletes, national governing bodies, sponsors, donors and American fans in celebrating yet another incredible performance that rightfully earns a place in Team USA and Olympic history.”