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Danny Davis tries to find the magic again

Sunday, December 22, 2013 | 4:26 p.m. CST; updated 10:33 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Snowboarder Danny Davis sits on the lip of the halfpipe before practicing for the World Cup U.S. Grand Prix halfpipe snowboarding event, in Frisco, Colo., on Thursday. With three spots available and more than a dozen legitimate candidates, Davis finished seventh in the season's first Olympic qualifier.

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — From a snowboarding standpoint, it was pure perfection: Soaring jumps 10 and 15 feet above the halfpipe. Double-flipping, twisting, devil-may-care tricks he'd never strung together so perfectly, all with landings so dead-solid it felt as if "the hands of God" were guiding him.

The image that spoke best of the perfection, however, was the one afterward. There was Danny Davis, shaggy beard and all, standing on the top of the podium, self-assured and smiling and waving the winner's check.

One step beneath him: Shaun White.

It was Jan. 6, 2010 — 37 days before the start of the Vancouver Olympics — and Davis had just beaten the best rider in the world at one of the highest-stakes contests that side of the Winter Games.

"I remember walking away from this and, like, thinking, 'It's doable,'" Davis said. "It's doable to beat Shaun White."

And if he did pull that off in Vancouver, he wouldn't be doing it for himself. He'd be doing it for Kevin Pearce, one of his very best friends, who was supposed to be the one to really challenge White, but whose quest had ended only days before in a nasty accident on a halfpipe that left him with life-threatening injuries.

Everything Davis did that day on the mountain in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., came with Pearce foremost in his mind. What a day it was.

There would be at least one more good one like that.

But Davis would never beat White again. And he would never make it to the Olympics.

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The win virtually guaranteed Davis a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, which, because of the depth of snowboarding in America, was considered every bit as difficult a task as winning a medal at the Games.

All he really had to do was show up at another qualifying event, strap on the board and make it down the halfpipe without falling.

"They said I needed to finish eighth, or 13th, or something like that, and it was a done deal," Davis said.

But snowboarding in the United States was, and remains, a sponsor-driven sport in which the governing body — in this case the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association — isn't the final say in scheduling, even in an Olympic year. Because of that, there was another contest, produced by one of Davis' sponsors, before the next Olympic qualifier. Many of the top contenders, including White, were skipping it, saving themselves.

"But I was like, 'I'm riding well. Why would I stop?'" Davis said.

He kept going. He won again. Another good friend of his, Jack Mitrani, finished third.

Meanwhile, the reports from the hospital where Pearce was recuperating were getting better each day.

"It wasn't us who were saving him, but all this good energy was great," Davis said. "We were doing it for Kev. We were writing it on our helmets."

Two victories in two weeks. An Olympic spot all but sewn up. Kevin was getting better.

It called for a celebration.

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By the time Davis reached the party in the mountains of Utah that night, White had redoubled his efforts back at his private halfpipe to make sure he wouldn't lose again.

Davis, meanwhile, was simply "The Man."

It wasn't just his ability to do the tricks, or the fact that he beat White. It was also that beard and an unpolished, free-spirited style that made him the guy people wanted to be around. Moments on YouTube of him and Luke Mitrani going Incredible Hulk and lifting a not-so-heavy pool table, or of Davis being knocked into dreamland by "Sleepytime" tea, are among his quirky best performances.

He was one of the "Frends" — a group of seven snowboarders, including Pearce, who gave themselves that name because "there's no 'I' in friends." It was, in their minds, the attitude that embodied snowboarding at its best.

There was a lot of talent in that group, with Pearce pushing the envelope the most. His plan for the Olympics was to pull off three "double cork" jumps in the same run — three double flips over the lip of the pipe, each with different numbers and types of twists packed within the flips — a feat that had seemed insane and impossible only a few years earlier.

It was on a training run in Park City, Utah, on Dec. 31, 2009, that Pearce was practicing the routine he hoped to use at the Olympics when he lost his bearings on one of those difficult tricks and slammed head-first into the halfpipe. He was airlifted to the hospital. The initial prognosis was grave.

"But we said, 'Let's be positive, let's keep snowboarding,'" Davis said. "Because Kevin certainly wouldn't want us to say, 'I can't snowboard because my friend just got hurt.' His parents told us to keep doing what we were doing. They knew how stoked Kev might be if he heard one of us was doing really good."

So, instead of Pearce throwing those three double corks, Davis did.

Watching the video nearly four years later, Davis views it with a mix of cold analysis sprinkled with occasional awe.

"There's a front 9 that is somewhat useless now," he says of one of the more simple jumps. "And there, that's the hands of God helping me land that one."

When asked about the run that beat White and made his good friend the Olympic favorite for the briefest of windows, Scotty Lago speaks about it with an air of reverence.

"It was unbelievable. Like, the perfect run," said Lago, who finished third that day. "If he hadn't been injured, he'd have been on that Olympic team and who knows what would have happened?"

As Davis is prodded to offer commentary while watching the replay on YouTube — Cab double cork 1080, frontside 900, Crail, frontside double cork 1080, switch backside rodeo double cork — he does it haltingly. Almost detached. His body leans away from the laptop.

This is a replay of what happened.

And of what might have been.

"The Olympic thing and beating Shaun, yeah, I missed out on that. But there'll be more times to beat Shaun and that's great," Davis said. "Fact is, I'm lucky I'm able to ride halfpipe and stuff, but Kev can't, and that's (expletived) up. And I made stupid choices and he didn't and that's what eats at me the most."

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Davis doesn't remember the accident itself, and for that, he's thankful.

"It was a big house party, a bunch of snowboarders, a bunch of people we knew," he said. "Super high energy. A bunch of people congratulating us. Too much fun. Not even too much fun. Just, clearly, one bad decision."

He and a couple friends, all having had too much to drink, took an all-terrain vehicle out for a spin, drove out onto a road and into another driveway. Going at a good clip, they didn't see the retractable metal fence deployed in the middle of that driveway.

After impact, Davis couldn't feel anything. His friend, Elliott Levitt, crawled out to the road and flagged down help. Levitt was scarred up and down with road rash and, after the ambulance arrived, all the guys figured he'd taken the worst of it.

Once they got to the hospital, as Davis' shock gave way to unthinkable pain, they realized how wrong they were. Davis broke his third lumbar vertebrae and shattered his pelvis. Surgeons fused three vertebrae together to fix the first injury and reconstructed his pelvis with a metal plate.

"Nobody was, like, 'You will never snowboard again the way you did,'" Davis said. "They said, 'You could. It's all about what happens from here on out. How well you take care of your body. How much you dedicate to getting back.'"

But the Olympics, naturally, were out of the question. And with Davis recuperating at home on his couch, they were no contest.

White won the gold medal, wrapping it up on his first run down the mushy superpipe at Cypress Mountain.

The biggest drama that night was what he would do the second time he dropped in. He could've slid on his belly to the finish and still taken the gold on the strength of the score he posted on his first, conservative-but-impeccable ride.

But after some debate with his coach, he went for it. A showman in the truest sense. He tried what had become the most famous, iconic jump in his sport that winter — the jump known as the Double McTwist 1260: Not two, not three, but three and a half revolutions tucked into two head-over-heels flips on his last jump in the pipe. He landed it, of course.

It was a trick he'd been working on for a while but one he really started taking seriously after the loss to Davis. It was the trick he needed to fend off a challenger who never reappeared.

"I just remember it was, like, the run of his life and I was, like, 'Wow, how did that happen?'" White said. "So, I went out and did the Double McTwist 1260. And then he got injured and, I don't know how to describe it. It was like, I went and got prepared for it and, then, all of the sudden, I didn't have anywhere to use this new weapon I got."

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After a long recovery, Davis was rounding back into form when he headed to New Zealand in August 2012 to take advantage of winter in the southern hemisphere.

He was wrapping up the first run of the morning and was trying to maneuver his way around a safety pole, the sort that course workers use to hang mesh fencing and banners on. He hit the pole with his board and that spun him into the next pole and suddenly, he was writhing in pain with a broken femur.

He had surgery in New Zealand but the rod the doctors inserted to stabilize the femur didn't take. So, last December, he had the surgery redone in Colorado.

He was cleared to start snowboarding again last summer, giving him about five months — most of it training in less-than-ideal conditions in New Zealand — to get ready for this year's Olympic qualifying.

So much has changed over the last four years.

Lago, who won the bronze medal in Vancouver, is still a "Frend," but when he travels, he stays with other people. Pearce has fully recovered and though he'll never ride competitively again, he is out on the circuit, giving inspirational speeches. Luke Mitrani broke his neck in an accident in New Zealand and his career is likely finished. Mitrani's brother, Jack, is more into doing backcountry rides for movies. Davis will probably go that route next.

But he still has work to do in the halfpipe.

"We saw it in that run he did in Mammoth," Pearce said. "You saw how talented he is. That was one of, if not the, very best athletic runs ever in a halfpipe. He has the style, he has the tricks. He has the amplitude.

"Danny has it all. It's a matter of laying it down. If he can, it's going to be unreal what you see."

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Asked whether he considers his 2013-14 season a matter of unfinished business or a comeback, Davis doesn't hesitate.

"It's a comeback," he says. "It's all about being a better snowboarder and being good again. Unfinished business is like I had it set in my head that I was going to the Olympics. But going to the Olympics is a tough, ridiculous thing in the States."

He knows he's a longshot this time. There are three spots available with more than a dozen legitimate candidates, most of whom have been healthy the past four years. Davis finished seventh in the season's first Olympic qualifier, showing glimmers of his old self, with four more contests to go.

The hope he hangs onto is this: While he had executed all of the jumps hundreds of times, that day he beat White in Mammoth — the day he dedicated to Pearce — remains the only time he'd ever strung them all together successfully in the same run.

Maybe that can happen again.

"In a way, I'm doing it for other people because everyone's been so supportive and cool after what happened," Davis said. "And I feel I owe it to them because I was an idiot the last time. I want to compete and I want to see.

"I want to be really good again."


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