February 8, 2018: Shaun White (USA) practices during the snowboard halfpipe training session during the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Phoenix Snow Park.(Photo: Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)CONNECT>TWEET>LINKEDINCOMMENTEMAILMORE
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Shaun White is old enough and wildly successful enough to appreciate how his career could have gone the other way.
He was, after all, anointed as The Next long ago, when he was 7 and signed his first sponsorship deal with snowboard manufacturer Burton.
“I was also teed up to be the next big failure,” White said.
Instead White, at 31, is a four-time Olympian in halfpipe and inspiration to virtually everyone who’s followed in his wake including his 2018 U.S. teammates Ben Ferguson of Bend, Ore., Jake Pates and Chase Josey.
The same is true in the women’s halfpipe where Kelly Clark is competing in her fifth Olympics, a period covering all but the event’s Olympic debut in 1998. That’s when Clark was a 14-year-old high school freshman at Mount Snow Academy in Vermont.
Clark rushed home after school to watch her VHS recording of snowboarding at the Nagano Olympics.
“That was where my Olympics Games started,” she said. “I watched that and I was sold. I remember everything about that day, what the weather was like. You don’t think you make decisions when you’re 14 that really change the direction of your life, but for me that was a big moment that really set something in motion for the next 20 years.”
White is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and king of the X Games, which fueled the Olympics’ adoption of action sports. Clark, 34, has three Olympic medals (one gold, two bronze). Both are in contention for more hardware in what could be their Team USA swan songs, although White hasn’t ruled out returning to skateboarding for its 2020 Summer Olympics debut.
That would be a full-circle finale for White, who was discovered at a California skate park by skateboarding legend Tony Hawk. For now, though, snowboarding against him is a bit like swimming against a still-elite Michael Phelps at his fifth Olympics in 2016.
At an Olympics press conference Thursday, 19-year-old Pates caught himself marveling simply that his name plate was next to White’s.
“In my dreams maybe I thought this would happen, but it’s really cool to see it come to reality,” Pates said.>
Snowboarder Kelly Clark of the United States practices ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Phoenix Snow Park on Feb. 9. (Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images)
When Pates was just starting out, he was a forerunner (course tester) at the 2007 Winter X Games. White, already a skateboard and snowboard legend, took time to talk with Jake and his younger sister, asking if then-6-year-old Charlie Sue had a boyfriend.
“I’ve always been star struck being around him,” Pates said. “He’s the man, he’s the god in my mind.
“People kind of filter out. You see a lot of the old field not competing any more just because people can only snowboard for so long. He’s one of the dudes that’s really stayed strong. He’s one of a kind. He’s Shaun. He’s got more skill than anyone’s seen.”
White is human, though. He’s undergone countless surgeries dating back to when he was a baby with a heart defect. In 2014, the chance for a third consecutive Olympic medal evaporated with two falls in his first finals run. He suffered multiple injuries last fall during training in New Zealand, somewhat questioning his sports mortality.
“Do I really want to do this?” White said. “I set my goals to be here and work on my runs and push through that fear. I’m excited to say I haven’t put down my best run yet,” despite earning a perfect 100 score at the U.S. Grand Prix meet in January to clinch his latest Olympic berth.
White empathizes with Japan’s Ayumu Hirano — 2014 Olympic silver medalist — or anyone else labeled as The Next Shaun White. Better to surround yourself with supportive people and make your own way, something Ferguson is trying to do.
"It's tough to define your own style,” said Ferguson, 23, who doesn’t automatically say White when asked about his mentors. “It's kind of more like a feeling that you go with. Style is super important in snowboarding. It's easy to lose touch with style, and think it's always about the next rotation or the next spin, but when I watch snowboarding, I want to watch someone do something they want to do and that looks cool. So that's what I'm trying to do with my snowboarding, and hopefully influence people in that route."
For Clark, her distinguished competitive career is just a piece of her obligation and contribution to the sport. She welcomes being a role model for teammates Arielle Gold, at her second Olympics, Maddie Mastro and gold medal favorite Chloe Kim.
“If your dream only involves you, it’s too small of a dream,” Clark said. “I don’t want to get done with snowboarding and have a good string of competition results, medals, accomplishments. I want to look at a culture that’s better because I was a part of it and when I look at this women’s team, that’s what I see. I see the strongest women’s halfpipe team, and I like to think that I’ve always made it about the snowboarding and pushed myself to what I’m capable of and where I finish these ladies will start.”