AP National Writer
The question hovers over Shaun White -- not so much the way a black cloud might linger but more like a whiff of smoke he casually can bat away.
What if he's not good enough?
Instead of avoiding those sort of conundrums, the world's best snowboarder pursues them.
--On the halfpipe, where he spent the better part of a year trying a trick he couldn't master but nonetheless emerged a favorite for a third straight Olympic gold.
--On the slopestyle course, where he eagerly took up the challenge presented by the Olympic overlords, who gave him a chance to win not one, but two, gold medals in Sochi.
--Even on the concert stage -- with a guitar in his hand -- where White and his band will soon tour the country to promote their newly released album.
Much as they watch him do tricks on the mountain, fans will come to listen to the superstar play and see if he can make it as a rocker. Part of the thrill is knowing there's at least a chance that he cannot.
"I like it. I like the fact that these things are there," the 27-year-old action sports icon tells The Associated Press.
White heads to Sochi as arguably the most famous athlete competing: "It's going to push me to do things I never would've done before," he says.
White concedes there's more at stake this time -- that he's had to grow up since the last time he hit the grand stage, in Vancouver four years ago.
Back then, he had the gold medal wrapped up with one run left -- the so-called victory lap that meant nothing. White used it to stomp his biggest trick, the Double McTwist 1260. It was one of the most electric moments of the Olympics: Totally unnecessary as far as the scoreboard went. But an absolute necessity as far as he was concerned.
"I've got to imagine he did it for himself, for everyone else, for the sport," says Jake Burton, the godfather of snowboarding and one of White's first key mentors. "He's got very high expectations for himself. I think the progression of the sport is one of the things he expects of himself."
Along those lines, White spent several months, starting in the spring of 2012, trying a triple cork -- three head-over-heels flips. Nobody had ever done it in a halfpipe, and White couldn't either.
Yet he didn't recoil from releasing an unflinching portrayal of that setback in a self-produced documentary -- a story that ends with a success: White's co-opting, then improving upon, a 1440-degree spinning jump that one of his key rivals, Iouri Podladtchikov, pulls off first. Podladtchikov, aka the "I-Pod," named it the "Yolo."
"That's the biggest compliment I could ever get in the sport," Podladtchikov says.
White's longtime coach, Bud Keene, describes the very calculating process the Olympic champion uses when he decides which tricks he'll focus on.
"He looks at the world standard, extrapolates it into the future based on how far the competition can push until game time, then adds 50 percent to that level," Keene says. "Basically, his formula for the Olympics is to show up one-and-a-half times better a rider as his nearest competition. That way, if he has a bad day and they have a good day, he can still win."
It's an even tougher hill to climb in slopestyle, a trick-filled trip down the mountain that White once dominated but more or less left behind for a half-dozen years to focus on the halfpipe.
When the International Olympic Committee added it to the program, presenting White a chance to win two golds, he never hesitated to throw his board into the ring. He did it knowing he'd be one of only a handful of riders who will try both disciplines -- and did it knowing there are dozens of competitors who have been focusing on slopestyle exclusively while White's time has been divided.
At a key event in December that White missed because of injury, top-ranked Mark McMorris of Canada stomped a triple-flipping jump (Which are daunting on the slopestyle course, but not as near-impossible as they appear in the halfpipe) and blew away the competition. Asked whether he or White should be the favorite in Russia, McMorris countered quickly: "You tell me, dog."
McMorris broke a rib at the Winter X Games. A teammate of his, Max Parrot, won that contest with two triple corks.
While all that was playing out, White was practicing about 100 miles away in Copper Mountain.