By the end of the day, his body ached all over. His ankle and back, a knee still sore from surgery. Shaun White was feeling every bit of 35 years old, worn down from a lifetime spent attacking the halfpipe, launching himself skyward, spinning and twisting and landing hard.
Riding a chairlift on a mountain in Austria, he saw the truth of it.
“The mountain was closing down and no one was around,” White recalls. “I was watching the sun go down and it just hit me. I was like ‘This is it. These are the signs.’”
The men’s halfpipe contest at the Beijing Olympics will be his last, he says. If so, it will mark the end of an era, an unmatched career that has spanned three gold medals and a record 13 X Games titles, making White the greatest competitive snowboarder ever.
Maybe the greatest American athlete in the history of the Winter Games.
“My riding speaks for itself,” he says when asked about this legacy. “I’ve always been trying to push and progress and do the next biggest thing … be ahead of the curve.”
Medals cannot tell the whole story. As snowboarding’s first crossover star, “the Flying Tomato” cut a striking figure with all that flowing red hair and millions upon millions in endorsements. His signature Double McTwist 1260 was one of many innovations he brought to the sport.
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Now the Carlsbad native hoped to coax one more memory. He made it through the qualifying round with a string of tricks already playing through his head. On Friday, his final Olympics ended with a fourth-place finish at the Genting Snow Park.
“The goal has been to just squeeze every bit of fun and excitement and joy out of this experience,” he says. “I really want to finish my career strongly, on my own terms.”
The very first time he stood over the halfpipe at the 2006 Torino Games, a crowd of thousands below, he was rattled. “I’m feeling all Olympic-y,” White confided to his support crew.
Snowboarding had already dubbed him the new king at 19. He was personable, marketable and wildly talented. After a shaky start in those first Games, squeaking into the final, he laid down a nearly flawless run for gold.
Becoming emotional afterward, White talked about his mother and the two surgeries required to repair a childhood heart defect. The rest of the U.S. snowboarding team remained calmly analytical.
“He has the amplitude and attitude that really separates him from others,” teammate Danny Kass said.
Coach Bud Keene noted that the new champion was “in control at very second, whether he’s in the air, whether he’s on the wall or whether he’s in the flat bottom. Everything is happening exactly the way he wants it to happen.”
My riding speaks for itself. I’ve always been trying to push and progress and do the next biggest thing … be ahead of the curve.
— Shaun White
By the time the 2010 Vancouver Games came around, the 23-year-old White had something more to show. Practicing in seclusion at a private halfpipe, he mastered the Double McTwist 1260 — two flips with three and a half spins — to dominate the field for a second gold.
“I feel it was such a miracle run,” he said.
It seemed like he was just getting started.
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“I don’t know how many kids really aspire to be a cowboy and get to be a cowboy,” White says. “At a young age, snowboarding is what I wanted more than anything.”
After turning pro at 13, he almost qualified for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and soon embarked on a historic string of victories, winning one or more X Games titles for the next 11 years.
At a compact 5-foot-9, the teenager showed an uncanny knack for generating speed in the halfpipe, hitting the wall at a precise angle and timing his launch perfectly. This combination translated into snowboarding’s most important determinant: amplitude.
Flying 20 feet above the lip gave White time to execute more twists and flips. It allowed him to keep adding and inventing.
“To be on top of a sport that’s ever-changing and for this amount of time, it’s been a challenge,” he says. “It’s been my life’s work.”
And it wasn’t just snowboarding. Spending his summers on a skateboard, White earned two X Games championships on the vert ramp. The contracts with Red Bull, Target and other corporations soon made him wealthy.
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But success came at a cost. The constant grind of practicing put wear and tear on his body, leading inevitably to injuries. Others in his sport did not always embrace him.
Snowboarding is known for its sense of community, rivals hanging out together on the mountain, cheering for each other during contests. White was intensely competitive and often trained alone, not wanting anyone to see what new magic he was conjuring. He was considered aloof, even arrogant.
“I used to derive so much, I don’t know how to describe it, self-worth and things from these exterior events,” he says now. “Competing and winning this award and getting this sponsorship and doing these things and building a career and all this stuff.”
The 2014 Sochi Olympics were supposed to be his crowning achievement.
With slopestyle snowboarding added to the program, White arrived in Russia hoping for double-gold, but it took only a few practice sessions for him and others to question the size and safety of the slopestyle course. Some liked it; White called it “intimidating” and soon withdrew.
“The potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympic goals on,” he said in a statement.
The quest for a third halfpipe title did not go much better, with his final run at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park coming up short. Though he tried to shrug it off — “It just wasn’t my night” — the fourth-place finish left him devastated.
People wondered if snowboarding’s next generation had passed him by. There was trouble off the mountain, too, as a drummer in his rock band accused him of sexual harassment, claiming he sent her explicit images and forced her to wear revealing clothes. A lawsuit was settled out of court.
Then, as the 2018 Pyeongchang Games drew near, the 31-year-old fell hard while practicing a dangerous trick — the double flip 1440 — in New Zealand. Lacerations on his forehead, lip and tongue required 62 stitches. Blood pooled in his lungs from a bruise.
Still, he made it to Pyeongchang where — like four years earlier — the men’s halfpipe came down to a final run. This time, White landed back-to-back 1440s, something he had never before accomplished. Skidding to a stop at the bottom of the course, he tore off his goggles and screamed.
To be on top of a sport that’s ever-changing and for this amount of time, it’s been a challenge. It’s been my life’s work.
— Shaun White
“I knew I had it in me,” he said of his third gold. “The fear was out the door.”
In the days that followed, White pondered trying to qualify for the Tokyo Summer Olympics in his other favorite sport, saying: “I’ll have to make a hard decision at that point, to be at the top of the game in snowboarding and then decide all of a sudden to let my competitors have two years of practice on me while I pursue skateboarding.”
Before he could make that choice, the pandemic hit.
As weeks of coronavirus restrictions became months, friends told White they couldn’t wait for a return to normal. He saw things a little differently.
“I just believe this happened for some reason,” he says. “You know, a lesson to be learned.”
Ski resorts shut down throughout the U.S. and travel limitations kept him from training in New Zealand or Canada. His life before, a whirlwind of training and public appearances, competitions, interviews and photo shoots, came to a halt.
This enforced break meant time at home with his new girlfriend, actress Nina Dobrev from “Vampire Diaries.” When they talked about getting the inside of the house painted, White recalled saying: “Let’s do it, we can do it.” Wall by wall, room by room, they did.
“I’ve found I’m quite handy over the quarantine,” he says. “There was a lot of stillness I was able to acquire because it was the only option.”
When the pandemic eased and competition resumed, any thoughts of skateboarding gold quickly faded. His place in snowboarding had changed, and there was no room for missing any more time in the halfpipe.
At contests, as he lined up for a run, the announcer would say “Dropping in, the oldest competitor.” White would look around, wondering: Who are they talking about?
The aches and pains served as a reminder, forcing him to cut back on training days as he prepared for Beijing. He recently took a fall and was able to keep riding but struggled the next day.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god,’” he says. “My neck and my everything was so stiff and trying to keep up and act like nothing happened was not working for me.”
Gold medal predictions for the men’s halfpipe in Beijing favor the likes of Yuto Totsuka and Ayumu Hirano of Japan. Maybe Scotty James of Australia.
Just making the U.S. team proved difficult for White, who missed the finals of the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain in January and had to fly to Switzerland for a last-minute qualifier.
A podium finish got him named to the American squad but left him as a decided underdog.
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Still, his approach to this final Olympic experience seems relaxed, maybe confident, certainly content. If snowboarding has one last chance to appreciate its biggest star, the feeling is mutual.
“I almost missed the bus last night because I was trading my U.S. team pins,” he says. “I’m having as much fun as I can.”
It all traces back to the chairlift in Austria, the sunset and a realization that his competitive days were coming to an end. White recalled getting emotional as he called friends and family — they agreed it was time to move on.
“Hey, beautiful run,” he remembers them saying. “Let’s see what’s next.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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