He may make it all look incredibly natural, but US snowboarding legend Shaun White overcame a huge amount to win his third Olympic gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. Having won gold in the halfpipe at Torino 2006 and retained the title four years later in Vancouver, White finished a disappointing fourth at Sochi 2014. His event was evolving fast, with younger athletes and more ambitious tricks.
Going into PyeongChang 2018, White was pushing himself to the limits, enduring a horrific crash that needed 62 stitches while attempting a 1440 (“I scared myself,” he said at the time. “I haven’t really had that much blood coming out of me before.”)
And entering his second run on the slopes of the Republic of Korea, White, then 31, was trailing his younger rival, Ayumu Hirano from Japan, by a full point – a significant margin in snowboarding. What he did next was remarkable. Knowing that landing a 1440 would probably not be enough to win, he attempted – and pulled off – two of them, back-to-back.
It was enough to propel him to gold, making White the most decorated snowboarder in Olympic history. “When they announced my score and I’d won, it crippled me,” White said immediately afterwards. “I had this crazy injury in New Zealand where I busted my face open. I actually did the same trick that injured me here in the halfpipe today. So there were a lot of obstacles to overcome, and now it’s all worth it.”
Talking now, the effects of his remarkable achievements in Korea are still palpable. White has nothing left to prove in the world of snowboarding and, while he’s still got an eye on an incredible fourth halfpipe gold at Beijing 2022, he’s currently relaxed and focusing on new frontiers.
“At the end of the day, I feel this huge weight off my shoulders for having done what I did at PyeongChang, getting that third medal,” he said. “That pressure of trying to prove something, this macho mentality I’ve got in my mind, that is now taking an easy back seat. I am just enjoying myself.”
White is busy overseeing his business empire but also beginning to focus on his next potential title – one which would place him alongside Eddie Eagan and make him only the second athlete in history to win a gold medal at both the Olympic Winter and Summer Games (Eagan won gold in boxing in 1920 and bobsleigh in 1932).
Amid his snowboarding glory, it’s often forgotten that White is also one of the best skateboarders on the planet – starting in vert skating, the domain of the likes of Tony Hawk, but also highly adept at the bowl skating that will take place at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“You know, it’s funny, they just announced some of the qualifying,” White said. “They say it’s going to start in May. I’m such a creature of habit, I need to know how many I need to win, where it’s going to be, and what’s going to happen. It’s so all over the place it’s unsettling, but it’s exciting at the same time. I’m best preparing myself for any outcome. I keep comparing it to snowboarding, that it’ll be like four events and it’s your best two scores, but it’s not at all like that. There are going to be 10 events and top five scores, it’s completely different. So I’m trying to work it out. I am now cruising into skating. It is just fun.”
White is thoroughly enjoying the training. “The nice thing about skating, selfishly, is that I get to be home. I see all the people I don’t get to see when I’m off training for snowboarding. I live in LA so I have to fly to Mammoth Mountain or Colorado or Austria, all these crazy places. It’s great, but it’s far from home and it’s a sacrifice. It’s cold. It’s also a bubble for me in the mountains – I’m under the microscope so you don’t really want to walk around town, unless I’m bundled up.
“For skating, I can be in jeans. I’m skating on Venice Beach, the sun is going down and I’ve stopped to get a taco. I’m kicking it with my friends, instead of being in Colorado. It’s been great and I’m having fun. It’s a different type of skating [in Tokyo] to what I did previously, which was vert skating, the big ramps. Now I’m doing bowl skating which is rad, it’s so much fun.
“I don’t think I’d have the same enthusiasm if it was vert. Vert is a similar mentality to halfpipe, skating bowl is more like slopestyle, so there’s some variety. Every park you show up to is totally different, there’s a new line, something to be sought out.”
White’s snowboard is still in storage, he admits, but he certainly isn’t losing interest. He is also excited about the next Winter Games in the Chinese capital.
“I haven’t snowboarded as much this season, I don’t even know where my stuff is,” he said. “There’s going to be a bag with a bunch of unwashed socks from PyeongChang and an old candy bar in the pocket.
“Every year I’ve come out to China, I’ve seen that the growth is exponential. The fact they landed the 2022 Olympic Games has really just heightened everything. It’s amazing to see how snowboarding has really taken off. Look at how many disciplines are in the Olympics now. It started off with halfpipe, then halfpipe, slopestyle, big air. They want more of it, people like to view it, and it is really resonating with the people that tune in to watch the Olympics. And adding surfing and skateboarding to the Summer Games is crazy.”
There’s no doubt that this growth is, in part, down to White. Whether it’s on a skateboard or a snowboard, with the pressure valve released after his PyeongChang glory, you sense that his Olympic journey is far from over.