Shaun White has two scars.
One is north-south on his face, forehead to chin, from a faceplant on the lip of the halfpipe in training last October that required 62 stitches and five days in intensive care at a New Zealand hospital after his lungs filled with blood. That, though, is healing, disappearing, receding.
The other is not. It is inside him, stretching from his head to his heart into his gut, the open wound from finishing fourth at the 2014 Winter Olympics after winning gold in 2006 and 2010.
“People ask me: When are you going to get over it?” White told NBC last year. “You don’t, you don’t really get over it. It’s kind of like a scar from falling off a bike. It’s just with you forever. But you learn from it. So it’s part of me now.”
Both scars drive and define the snowboard tsar from Carlsbad, now 31, as he pursues a spot on a fourth U.S. Olympic team. Before he can exorcise the ghosts of the last Olympics, he has to get to the next one first.
Qualifying for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea resumes this week at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix in Snowmass, Colo., where White posted the highest score of Thursday’s preliminary round, 95.0 points, to advance to the final Saturday afternoon.
This is the third of four U.S. qualifiers that include international entrants, concluding next week at Mammoth Mountain. The opening ante for Olympic consideration is a top-three finish, and White got that last month at Copper Mountain, Colo. But Ben Ferguson and Jake Pates also have podium finishes, and others could get them in Snowmass and Mammoth, in which case the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association would determine its three automatic Olympic spots based on each rider’s best two performances.
White does have a safety net, though. The USSA has a fourth, discretionary spot it can use on men’s halfpipe and, you’d think, would use on the biggest name in the sport – in all winter sports, for that matter.
It would get White to Pyeongchang, but it wouldn’t get him there with the confidence he might need to beat Australia’s Scotty James or Japan’s Ayumu Hirano – especially after what happened last October at Cardrona Snow Park in the rugged mountains on New Zealand’s South Island.
White was doing a preseason training run on the 22-foot halfpipe there, performing the four-revolution cab double cork 1440, when he caught his board on the lip and slammed his face into it. He slid to the bottom of the pipe and soon was sitting in a pool of his own blood. He was airlifted to a local hospital.
That was a month after he injured his hip in a separate training accident, and a year after ankle surgery.
Footage of the grisly crash in New Zealand was released for the first time earlier this month, in the initial installment of an eight-part video documentary on White’s Olympic journey produced by Air + Snow, a touring festival that weds snowboarding and music (and that White now owns). It begins with the warning: “This show contains scenes that may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”
“I scared myself,” White says in a hospital scene. “I haven’t really had that much blood coming out of me before … I was freaking out.”
After 62 stitches and five days in the ICU, plus a mandated break from training, White climbed back on the horse. He went to Austria to practice tricks into a giant air pit – specifically the cab double cork 1440 – and in December finished third in the first Olympic qualifier behind Hirano and Ferguson.
Doubts returned, though, a week later at the second qualifier in Breckenridge, Colo. White failed to lay down a clean run in the prelims and didn’t reach the 10-man final, which the 19-year-old Pates won to add to an already crowded U.S. field vying for Olympic berths.
That dropped White to fourth in the overall qualifying standings with 1,120 points, behind Ferguson (1,800), Pates (1,320) and Danny Davis (1,200). Gabe Ferguson and Chase Josey are tied for fifth but within striking distance with two events remaining.
“I made a mistake,” White says in the documentary about the New Zealand crash that nearly ended his Olympic prospects. “I can let that affect me, or I can decide not to and ride like I know I can. Every day is a building block.”