ASPEN, Colo. — He’s got the top trick. He’s got the great nickname. He’s even got the Olympic gold medal.
Iouri Podladtchikov — pronounced “YOU-ree Pod-LAT-she-kawv” but more commonly known as “I-Pod” — has everything he needs to be the coolest snowboarder in the halfpipe.
Now, the big question is whether his injured knee will hold up well enough to give him a chance to defend his title next month at the Winter Games in South Korea. Podladtchikov has been steadily working his way back since tearing his right ACL during world championships 10 months ago.
If the snowboarder — born in Russia but who represents Switzerland — could go back-to-back, he would join Shaun White as the only snowboarders in the Olympic halfpipe to do so.
White is still the sport’s biggest star despite a shocking fourth-place finish four years ago in Sochi, and Podladtchikov knows White has been hard at work. But Podladtchikov also knows he’s the one who came up with the game-changer — when he introduced the world to the “Yolo Flip” in the lead-up to Russia. It’s a dizzying, back-wrenching 1440 degrees of spin — a difficult maneuver that he may trot out this weekend at the Winter X Games to see where he stands.
The best evidence the knee is restored, however, came last week when he won a World Cup snowboarding halfpipe event in Switzerland. Maybe he really can defend that Olympic gold — something he wants to believe is doable but only recently convinced himself that it truly is possible.
“The most difficult thing in long-term injuries is to regain trust in your own skills,” I-Pod said. “Belief is a strong emotion.”
Turns out, he’s a fast healer. Four days after his surgery, he was on a stationary bike. Nearly a week later, he was riding a regular bike through town. A short time after that, he was back on his skateboard .
It was all with a purpose in mind: Not to lose too much muscle in his leg. He couldn’t afford to if he wanted to be back in time.
“I have never had such a scheduled summer, with a lot of the talks about this injury,” Podladtchikov said. “I was in and out of the clinics way too many times. I definitely didn’t have enough beach days this summer.”
He returned to snowboarding in June . Just a few gentle runs down the slope on a warm, sunny day. A little later, he began mixing in a few tricks even with a protective screw in his knee. He had the screw removed for good on Sept. 12 — the day before his 29th birthday.
“A great present,” he said.
Ever since, he’s been trying to dial in the “Yolo Flip” — a trick that I-Pod debuted about a year before the Sochi Games, and one that sent White scurrying back into the halfpipe to learn.
This year, the “Yolo Flip” — or some form of a 1440-degree jump — will almost certainly be mandatory to win the gold medal. Ayumu Hirano, a 5-foot-3 Japanese rider, could try two in his Olympic run. White scored a perfect 100 at an Olympic qualifier earlier this month with one 1440 and the Double McTwist 1260, a trick that very few riders even try.
“I feel things are more important to certain people than others, but there’s one thing that’s important to everyone,” Podladtchikov said with a chuckle, alluding to the Olympic gold medal. “That’s where you’re coming from with Shaun hunting me for that title, which I took from him.”
Because of that, Podladtchikov will draw more than his share of attention when the men hit the halfpipe in Pyeongchang.
“I-Pod’s an awesome rider who puts on a show,” said Australia’s Scotty James, who will be one of the favorites. “You never doubt a true champion to come back and do what they love.”
Podladtchikov has found that becoming an Olympic gold medalist and acting like one require distinctly different skills.
“I was not born into this superstardom that Shaun was living for a very long time and still is living,” I-Pod said. “I was not even close to imaging what it would be like to get stopped everywhere, at least where I’m from back home. It was a bit much for a while, and I was like, ‘Is this ever going to change back to a normal life, where you don’t have to talk about it every day?'”
“I wasn’t telling my agents, ‘Get me in a Hollywood film,’ or anything like that.”
Instead, he went after more meaningful pursuits off the snow — returning to school to work on his degree, attempting ballet to make his snowboarding a little less “aggressive” and trying new things in photography , which has long been a hobby of his.
But maybe the best day of his post-Olympic life came at a low-key contest — the Swiss championships — not too long after his victory in Russia. The man who invented the “Yolo Flip” was back in the halfpipe again, playing follow the leader with a large group of kids that couldn’t believe who they were hanging with.
“It was a moment that is really hard to beat,” Podladtchikov said. “This joy. This pure, honest joy. It was so right.”
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org