APTOPIX Beijing Olympics Snowboarding

Shaun White gets emotional after his final run in the men’s halfpipe finals Friday, in Zhangjiakou, China. Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Shaun White is gone now, a retired old snowboarder at 35, an ambitious young man otherwise. At his fifth Olympics, on the final run of his final competition, he took a dignified glide out of prominence. He rode down the halfpipe after a fall, helmet raised to the sky, messy red hair seemingly waving to a small crowd at Genting Snow Park.

White, the only triple gold medalist in Olympic snowboarding history, knew then he wouldn’t make the podium. Fourth was the best he could do, and for once, he could handle that.

“I’m proud of this life I’ve led,” White said, wiping at his eyes.

It’s often considered the depressing part of a star athlete’s journey, this sort of tranquil ending. But if you take away the fixation on heroism – one of the biggest problems with sports – then you’re free to abandon the legacy guardianship and see a competitor content to know he exhausted his athletic gifts. He gave all anyone can give: everything. There’s no shame in finality.

In the men’s halfpipe, now there is better than White’s best. Whoa, there is better. White has spent half his life pushing the sport forward, with his signature Double McTwist 1260 and double cork 1440s and a bunch of cool appetizer tricks creating a show that’s probably best described using curse words. Now everyone sees a future that once seemed like only White could visualize, and the flying standard-bearer is on the ground and looking at younger snowboarders doing things he can’t ask of his body.

Such progress is the epitome of legacy. Legacy is not success stashed in a vault to make someone unforgettable and untouchable. It’s the greatness passed down that gives a star a ticket to eternity. On Friday, White watched Japan’s Ayumu Hirano raise the standard after being pushed by Australian rival Scotty James. Those were the same men who, four years ago, challenged White at the PyeongChang Games and turned that halfpipe final into a competitive spectacle.

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To win gold, Hirano had to land the first frontside triple cork 1440s – four complete rotations and three off-axis flips and who knows what else because it happens so fast – in Olympic history. He had to receive a 96.0 score on the final run of the event.

Hirano, who is 12 years younger than White, had won two Olympic halfpipe silver medals as a teenager. Now, as the sole proprietor of the triple cork 1440, he has a trick that no one else has mastered. James, who won bronze four years ago, climbed a spot this time. Swiss snowboarder Jan Scherrer took bronze, with a score slightly higher than White’s 85.0.

None of the medalists is older than 27. Hirano, who is 23, was born nine months after halfpipe debuted at the 1998 Nagano Games. They grew up aspiring to be on White’s level. White leaves appreciating how good they have become. The sport has changed so quickly that his stunning gold medal performance in 2018 wouldn’t have been strong enough to compete for gold or silver Friday. At best, he would have been hoping for bronze.

It doesn’t make him a has-been who should have called it quits after PyeongChang. He’s the man who created the pulley, and the next generation is using his creation to build a more efficient way to go higher. Sometimes, that’s the best way to say goodbye, when it’s clear your work is done.

“People keep asking me what my legacy in this sport is like,” White said, looking back at the halfpipe venue. “I think you saw it today.”

White fought with his worn body, ignored a throbbing leg and tried to win with savvy. He made it through a conservative first run without incident. He went bigger with his second run, and when he finished, he he pumped a fist, screamed and yanked the snowboard off his feet in celebration. He was pumped as he moved temporarily into second place.

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It was as high as he would get. He knew before his final run that he needed to leap over at least one higher score to keep his medal hopes alive. He summoned the past and attempted the double cork 1440 combination that impressed the judges in PyeongChang. But during the second 1440, he crashed, leaving him to take a long and emotional journey down the halfpipe.

He had time for his mind to travel back to Torino in 2006, to Vancouver in 2010, to Sochi in 2014, to PyeongChang in 2018. And finally, as he ran out of room, he was here. The end.

“I knew this day would come,” White said later, crying. “To finally be here is pretty wild.”

Look at him, stubble on his face and bags under his eyes, ready to move on. When he won his first gold medal 16 years ago, he celebrated with his family, clothes extra baggy on his 19-year-old frame, an American flag draped over his shoulders. He had so much red hair it could’ve replaced some of the stripes on that flag. Today, he keeps his hair cut low and styles it like a television anchor, all adultlike and corporate.

“I got what I got today, and fourth’s amazing,” White said. “I’m proud.”

In 2014, White was so upset about a fourth-place showing in Sochi that it haunted him until he could redeem himself. He knew the deal after this one. It took some magic just for him to qualify for the Beijing Games. He found joy in the chase.

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White is just the latest celebrated champion to embrace fourth. A day earlier, it was Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu, a two-time gold medalist who maxed out and spoke afterward as a humbled legend.

“I hope this performance can stay in some corner of your heart,” Hanyu told reporters before he walked away.

What a lyrical way to accept athletic mortality.

“It’s bittersweet,” White said of his farewell. “It’s beautiful.”

Shaun White, the consummate winner, departed as simply a competitor. No gold medal. No Flying Tomato nickname. No new tricks. Just tears, applause and a clear understanding it’s time to go. The sport he dominated for so long can stand on its own.

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