With Shaun White's expected return to Slopestyle at Winter X, it would be easy to bill this year's contest as Davids versus Goliath. But it's tough to tag Torstein Horgmo as one of the underdogs in this scenario. Last summer Horgmo, 23, became the first snowboarder to land a triple cork, on a 100-foot jump built on a glacier in his home country of Norway. He then opened this season with back-to-back Slopestyle wins at the first two stops of the Winter Dew Tour, with runs that included a switch frontside double cork 10, a switch backside 12, a backside nine and a frontside double cork 10. He focuses entirely on Slopestyle, is one of the most technical riders on the boxes and rails, and does everything with style.
White, on the other hand, divides himself between SuperPipe, Slopestyle and skateboarding, all while juggling the demands of being a two-sport superstar and a media darling with video game and clothing empires to oversee. Still, over the years, White has dominated Slopestyle as much as SuperPipe. He's won five Winter X gold medals in the event, and is known as one of the most consistent riders in the park. But that's when he's riding. In preparation for the 2010 Olympics, the 24-year-old White stepped away from the terrain park to learn a litany of new tricks in the halfpipe -- most notably his signature double McTwist 1260 -- to put himself in position to make the U.S. team and win a second straight Olympic gold medal. But that goal was accomplished nearly a year ago. And if anyone can shift his focus in a matter of months, it's White.
There's also the strong possibility that in a few months the International Olympic Committee will announce the addition of snowboard (and ski) Slopestyle to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. This could light an additional fire under White's board to get back into the Slopestyle swing. Last year, he said he'd be more interested in returning for a third Olympic Games, at the age of 28, if he had the opportunity to compete for multiple medals like his counterparts in other Olympic sports.
To Horgmo's advantage is the fact that White will be equally, if not more, focused on SuperPipe while in Aspen. In that event, he is attempting to become the first athlete to four-peat in two sports (he already did it in Slopestyle, from 2003-06). Horgmo also has the advantage of recent competition. Winter X will be White's first contest of the season, after a summer spent dominating the skateboard vert circuit and a fall spent touring with his new skate video game. But White loves nothing more than to be considered the dark horse. Take last season, for example. While many of his peers believed he was resting on his skate laurels and sleeping on snowboarding, he was actually taking heli rides to training sessions in a secret halfpipe. (How very Shaun White of him.) When he showed up in New Zealand for the first contest of the 2009-10 Olympic season, he did so with a handful of tricks not one other rider could land.
This year's scenario could be similar, but without the secret Slopestyle course. Since Vancouver, White's logged only a few weeks' worth of days on snow and, until recently, hadn't hit a jump in the park or transitioned his double cork 10s out of the halfpipe. But he's been working out on the Park City air bags and riding his local LA mountains, so a betting man would put money on White bringing a few solid double corks to Slopestyle finals Sunday.
If he wants a shot at beating Horgmo, that's a necessity. Horgmo has huge spins, tons of style and one or two tricks he's holding onto until finals. "I'm not going to throw something I've never tried, but I might throw something I haven't done in contests yet," says Horgmo, who scored his best Winter X finish -- fourth -- last year. But although the triple earned him a ton of attention, don't expect him to throw it here. If the Snowboard Big Air jump is big enough and has sufficient transition (last year's would have been too small with too drastic a transition), he might attempt it in that event. But he has the goods, and the momentum, to beat White head-to-head in Slopestyle. (He will, however, be riding through the pain of a few cracked ribs. He injured them while filming at home in Norway at the beginning of December.)
There are no slouches in the rest of the field, either. While last year's Slopestyle winner, Eero Ettala, recently withdrew due to an ACL tear in early January, a gang of up-and-comers has stepped in to vie for his spot. There's WX14 Big Air winner Halldor Helgason, who became the first snowboarder to throw a backside double cork 12 in a Winter X Slopestyle competition last year. Then there are guys like Mark McMorris, Eric Willett, and Air & Style Beijing and O'Neill Evolution slope winner Sebastien Toutant, who all have multiple cork 12 variations on lock.
Betting against White might be historically crazy, but Horgmo and the rest of these riders have been acquiring slopestyle game while White's been designing video games. If he wants to get back to the podium he once dominated, he'll need every double cork he can muster -- and figuring out how to bring a new double variation to the kicker table like he did last year in pipe wouldn't hurt either.