Sochi - For Shaun White, the greatest snowboarder of his generation and the inspiration to millions of daredevil kids wanting to follow in his tracks, the Sochi Olympics was not so much a hard fall but a crash landing.
The biggest drawcard of the Games turned out to be one of the major flops after pulling out of his first event and failing to win a medal in his second.
For the crowds that flocked to the Caucasus Mountains hoping to see him produce his jaw-dropping tricks and the millions of people watching on television, it was a letdown of major proportions.
Before the Games, the American had brazenly talked up his prospects of going for not one but two gold medals after slopestyle was added to the Olympic programme for the first time.
But after he fell on one of his first practice runs, the man who was once considered the ultimate daredevil on snow announced that he was pulling out because he was wanted to save himself for the halfpipe.
The halfpipe has long been White's domain. He won the gold medal at the past two Olympics and a third victory in Sochi would have elevated him to a rare pantheon of people who have won the same individual event at three Olympics.
But in his sport, in which competitors pride themselves on taking risks, he quickly came under heavy criticism from supporters and critics alike.
His decision to quit the slopestyle only added to the pressure to win the halfpipe and the 27-year-old looked to be well on his way when he posted the highest score in the qualifiers.
But in the final, when the pressure was at its greatest and the crowds were cheering as loud as they could, he was unable to reproduce his best form.
He made a hash of his first run and failed to garner enough points on his second to get on the podium as Switzerland's Iouri “I-Pod” Podladtchikov nailed his landings to take the gold medal ahead of Japanese teenagers Ayumu Hirano and Taku Hiraoka.
“I definitely knew what run I wanted to put down,” White told a news conference.
“My dream scenario was I was going to land the first run and have the opportunity to maybe do something that's never been seen before, with the triple cork or something like that.
“I tried to win. I went for it, I went for big tricks that only Iouri and myself are doing. I could have played it safe and tried to get a decent score, but I wanted to win.”
It was clear from the moment White arrived in Sochi that something was amiss with the normally laidback Californian.
When he pulled out of the slopestyle, he described the obstacle course as dangerous. Then he was highly critical of the halfpipe venue, saying the slushy snow had prevented him from practising his best tricks.
But he refused to blame the conditions on Tuesday, dismissing his performance as “one of those nights.”
“I had a tough time but everybody was riding the same conditions, everybody was in the same boat, that's the only thing that you can look at,” he said.
Although he said he plans to continue competing, questions about White's chances of returning to the top are sure to intensify.
When he won his first gold medal in Turin in 2006, he was a wide-eyed teenager who had made the transition from extreme skateboarding to snow and ice.
Four years later, in Vancouver, he was the coolest cat on the mountain, winning gold in baggy denim jeans with all the fearlessness and unwavering self-belief of an athlete at the peak of his powers.
But in the past year, a newer, more mature White has emerged. The long cherry-red locks of hair that earned him the nickname “The Flying Tomato” have been shorn, replaced by a more conservative look.
He is part-athlete, part-businessman, developing an expanding portfolio of commercial interests that include his sponsorships with snowboarding manufacturers, cameras, drinks makers and clothing lines.
He has already one of the highest-paid athletes in American sport and his added responsibilities have eaten into his playtime.
Challenges are nothing new to White, however. Although he started snowboarding at six and turned professional at 13, he has endured his fair share of setbacks.
He was born with a heart defect and twice underwent surgery before he was five.
In 2004 he spent six months in rehabilitation after coming back too soon from knee surgery. In 2009, he chipped a bone in his ankle and missed most of the season.
To stay ahead of the pack, White has had to constantly refine and improve his act, coming up with more elaborate and dangerous tricks.
He also modified his training regime. When he was younger he would spend all day on the snow but now he usually goes to the gym.
“The tricks that I've learned getting ready for this competition I think will carry on for the next couple of years within the sport,” he said.
“I don't really think tonight makes or breaks my career. I've been snowboarding for so long and I love it, it's given me so much. I'm happy just to take this for what it is and move on and continue to ride and put my best foot forward.” - Reuters