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Shaun White soars in thrilling halfpipe competition, and it was only qualifying

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 2/13/2018 Rachel Axon
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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — All that mattered was advancing to the Olympic halfpipe final. But with the top riders in the world all in one place, the one-upmanship couldn’t be avoided.

Highlight: White tops halfpipe qualifying

In a thrilling qualifier at Phoenix Snow Park on Tuesday, it was Shaun White who came out on top and a field of talented snowboarders who set the stage for a showdown in the final on Wednesday.

White finished as the top qualifier, scoring a 98.50 on his second run, and moved a step closer to getting back on an Olympic podium. After a disappointing fourth-place finish in Sochi, the two-time Olympic gold medalist is looking for gold again in his fourth Olympics.

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“I knew I had it in me. And I watched these young guys put in these amazing runs and it fired me up and I just wanted to show, this is what I’ve been doing my entire life and I’m here to put it down,” White said. “I feel night and day physically and mentally from Sochi, and I think that was a little bit of that shining through today.”

Almost all the top riders got through to the 12-man final, with Sochi bronze medalist Taku Hiraoka of Japan missing the cut in 13th.

Atop the leaderboard were the guys expected to contend for gold — White, Australia’s Scotty James, Japan’s Ayumu Hirano and the USA’s Ben Ferguson.

All scored above an 87 on their first runs, and by the end of the competition, those four and Japan’s Raibu Katayama were in the 90s.

Riding one after the other, James and White each landed back-to-back double cork 1260s — a trick with two off-axis flips and three-and-a-half spins. James scored 96.75 to briefly take the lead before White claimed the top spot.

It bettered White’s first run score of 93.25, which was the fourth-highest of the day

“People forget you still gotta qualify to get to finals. I was stoked to put that run down,” White said. “That took the pressure and the edge off, and then I started seeing everybody putting these great runs and I figured I would kind of just step it up. They motivated me to send it on that last one.”

While the riders tried to best each other, it was clear they have plenty left to show in the final.

Hirano, the Sochi silver medalist, landed back-to-back double cork 1440s to win the X Games last month. White has landed each of those tricks and said he’s been working on doing them consecutively in a run.

“We have a very similar level and I know what he does and he knows what I do,” Hirano said.

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James, meanwhile, will attempt his switch backside double cork 1260, one of the most technical tricks in the halfpipe.

American Chase Josey — one of four U.S. riders in the final with White, Ferguson and Jake Pates — said he could attempt six double corks in his run. That would be a first for any rider, and Josey landed five double corks in a run last year.

“It was a pretty strong level of riding today. Dudes were throwing down and doing some good stuff for sure,” Ferguson.

"I think (Wednesday) the level will be elevated a little bit for sure. You'll see gnarlier tricks coming out probably even people going higher."

With the stage to unleash their biggest tricks, that means more one-upmanship for riders who gave a good feel for what the Olympic final will look like. For White, though, it wasn’t just pure ego. As the top qualifier, he’ll be the last to ride in each of the three final runs.

“I get my favorite slot, dropping last, and that was big for me,” he said. “That’s really a good-luck spot and I really wanted it, so I’m happy to have it.”

Related slideshow: Best of 2018 Winter Olympics (Provided by photo services)

Canada's gold medallists Justin Kripps and Alexander Kopacz bite their medals on the podium during the medal ceremony for the 2-man bobsleigh at the Pyeongchang Medals Plaza during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang on February 20, 2018. 2018 Winter Olympics
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