KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Snowboard icon Shaun White quickly answered any questions about his readiness for the Olympic halfpipe competition, posting the top score in qualifying Tuesday afternoon to advance directly to the finals at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.
White drew oohs and aahs from the crowd on his very first jump, getting tremendous elevation on his jumps and performing back-to-back double flips on his way to a 95.75 score. He had a 70.75 on his second run, but it didn't matter. He easily joined five other riders who earned automatic byes to the semifinals. Twelve other riders competed in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Russian time, with the top six finishers moving on the 12-man gold-medal round at 9:30 p.m..
Earlier in the day, there were reports that the 2 p.m. qualifying round would be scrapped due to warm weather and slushy condition. Instead, there would be one semifinal later in the day. But organizers changed their minds and decided that the halfpipe course, which had come under heavy criticism during training, was in decent enough shape to start on time.
White, the reigning two-time gold medalist in snowboard halfpipe, made his most impressive jump after qualifying. As he made his way through the "mixed zone" where reporters interview athletes at the Games, White was told that one of his biggest fans, a cancer survivor, was standing along the fence in the spectator area. He jumped a barrier and ran over to the boy to meet the boy.
Ben Hughes, a 10-year-old from St. Louis, Mo., made the trip to Sochi through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. So did Katie Lyle, 19, a cancer survivor from Pensacola, Fla. They both got to meet their hero when White made his impromptu leap over the mixed zone fence.
"My son's wish was to be here and see Shaun White snowboarding," said Liz Hughes, wiping tears from her eyes. "One of our friends from the press -- we didn't know him, but we met him today -- made it happen."
Mike Wise, a columnist from the Washington Post, had found out about the Make-A-Wish kids earlier in the day. Wise told a U.S. Olympic official about Ben Hughes and asked if someone could life him over the fence to meet White. The world's greatest snowboarder went to him, instead.
Ben was asked what he thought when he saw White bounding over the fence.
"This can't be happening," he said. "This is super awesome."
Lyle said she was in a Pensacola hospital four years ago, getting chemotherapy treatments, when she watched White win his second halfpipe gold in Vancouver. She was smitten.
"Watching him compete, he has such sportsmanship, he's so lively, he's so, so full of life," she said. "He just really inspired me."
"Oh my God, I love him," Lyle said. "But he's cuter in person."
What did you think of him cutting off his long red hair, she was asked?
"You know, I didn't like it on TV," Lyle said. "But seeing it in person, it's all right. I approve."