BONGPYEONG, South Korea – There are times when it helps to feel invincible, and Shaun White knew this was one of those times. Most of us can’t get there. If most of us were riding a chairlift when Japanese snowboarder Yuto Totsuka crashed gruesomely during the halfpipe, we would try to see what happened to him, and when we found out Totsuka was being carried off on a stretcher, it would stick in our head. White said later, “I didn’t really stop to take a gander.” He did not want to know. He wanted to win a gold medal.
And so there he was, at the top of the halfpipe, knowing he had to put down the run of his life. Yes, he had won gold twice before, in 2006 and 2010. But snowboarding is harder now. The pipes have gotten bigger, the tricks more elaborate, the riders fitter and more daring. White did not even hit the gym until the last few years. He works out now. The tricks are so complicated that it is even too dangerous to practice them regularly.
Maybe you saw White trying to do something he had done twice before. He knew better. He had never landed back-to-back 1,440-degree tricks. He knew as well as anybody the risk in even one 1,440. As he tried one in October, the tip of his board nipped the rim of the halfpipe. He slammed his head. The injury was so gruesome that at the bottom of the hill, his coach, J.J. Thomas, could not even look at him. White says, “It completely separated my face.” He needed 62 stitches. Other snowboarders told him later that they had to ride around the puddle of his blood.
Now, at the top of the Olympic halfpipe, White was getting impatient. Just tell me to go already, he thought. He got the go-ahead, and off he went.
He nailed it. Thomas said later, “I think, personally, it’s the best halfpipe run I’ve ever seen in the history of the sport.”
But White was still not sure if he won. As he said afterward: “I’m expected to be the best and greatest in my sport. I can’t help but wonder if they’re going to nitpick my run because of that. Sometimes I get scored against myself.”
It was not the most modest comment of these Olympics. But we are not drawn to Shaun White because of his modesty.
White has always believed he was supposed to win. This is why he has three gold medals now, and why he has left some bruised feelings in his wake. At his first Olympics, in Turin, in 2006, it was clear that he was not like the other riders. They knew it and he knew it. The sport’s culture emphasized camaraderie and being stoked when a teammate nailed a trick. The redheaded sensation known as the Flying Tomato often kept his distance from other riders. He was there to win the gold medal and reap the benefits. Some of the other snowboarders thought he was selfish; he thought their attitude was fraudulent. Didn’t everybody want to win?
When he got his gold in Italy, he announced his hope of dating figure skater Sasha Cohen; when that went nowhere, he built a business empire.
“When I was younger, it was very uncool to want to win, and to train and be upset when you lost,” he says. “It’s a new day and age. It’s a new sport, honestly.”
By 2014, White was a rock star on the snow and the leader of a band off it. He was trying to do too much and he knew it. He found himself in the same position he would be in Korea: the last rider, needing a great performance to win gold. But he knew something was not right in Sochi. Leading up to the Games, winning had not consumed him in the same way. He did not feel invincible.
“It’s awful to admit it,” he says now, “but I was unmotivated, slightly defeated before I got there.”
He finished fourth in Russia. He had two choices after that: quit or search for his love of the sport. He chose the latter.
“Plenty of my friends and family were like, ‘You’ve got medals,’” White says. “‘You can easily sail into the sunset and write your novel or whatever.’”
White hired a new agent, a new physical therapist, a new public-relations person, and started emphasizing fitness.
There have been some ugly days. Lena Zawaideh, a drummer in his band Bad Things, sued him for sexual harassment, alleging that he “repeatedly sexually harassed her and forced his authoritarian management style on her for over seven years.” He settled the suit. When asked at his press conference in PyeongChang about the allegations, White said he’d rather talk about the Olympics not “gossip.”
This is not a story about a changed man. It’s a story of a champion who somehow became a greater champion. How many people can rekindle that feeling of invincibility?
White knew he would put down a great final run. He knew it because there was a gold medal on the line and he is Shaun White. He is Shaun White again.
“You could come up on any other day when all these people aren’t here and ask me to do that, and I’d be terrified,” he said.
When it was over and he heard the announcer bellow out the beginning of his score—“Ninety-seven…”—White did not wait for the rest. He knew gold was his again.
He burst into tears and kept crying as he hugged friends and family. His father, Roger, said, “I’ve never seen him cry before. He broke his finger one time and was having a hard time playing guitar. He didn’t even really cry.”
Shaun went from interview to interview afterward, taking his time with each one, and then taking some more. He told his story over and over. He never lost his enthusiasm for it. More than once, he mentioned that after his perfect score of 100 at Snowmass in Aspen, Colo., last month, his family started teasing him by calling him Mr. Perfect. He said it was to keep him grounded.
He is not Mr. Perfect. But he is three-time Olympic champion.