Just Like a Rock Star

Shaun White is still out here, from mountaintop bars to the beach house to Pyeongchang—no matter what the president says
by BRANDON SNEED
for B/R Mag
January 16, 2018

Stories

It’s mid-October, and Shaun White drops into a halfpipe in Cardrona, New Zealand, with one trick on his mind: the Double-Cork 1440, a double-flip with four full spins and a grab.

On his first hit he throws a 720, leaning into his landing to gather speed. As he rides up the opposite wall and prepares for launch, he doesn’t see the six-inch chunk missing from the top of the ramp and rides right over it.

Airborne, rising more than 20 feet above the deck of the pipe—and 40 feet above the ground—Shaun completes the rotations of the trick. But he’s drifting. And as he comes down, his board strikes the icy corner of the deck’s edge. As he falls toward the bottom of the pipe, the board digs into the snow. Shaun’s face slams into the ground.

As his coach and others rush to his side, the snow around him turns red.

Shaun’s forehead and the bridge of his nose are gashed wide open. He is cut clear to the bone. And his top lip is split in a way that makes it look unlike a lip but rather two small appendages dangling over his mouth. His appearance is almost inhuman; he seems more like an alien who has crash-landed here.

Somebody calls the hospital, which sends a helicopter.

Dude, Shaun thinks, fuck this.  

And he doesn’t know yet that on top of all that, his lungs are also filling with blood.

In all this, he wants to cry, but he manages to crack a torn smile.

“It’s always this looming thing in the distance, the possibility that it could all go south,” Shaun would tell me later. “And then to have it actually go south? I just took the heaviest hit in the worst possible scenario, and I’m somewhat OK. I was like, I’m still here.”

Bleacher Report

I first met Shaun in sunny Malibu back in late August, not long before the crash in Cardrona. We were around the corner from his beach house at The Native, a small hotel with just 13 rooms off the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a place where music stars like Bob Dylan hid out back in the day, revived by new owners in early 2017.

Shaun met me at Room 13 wearing dark jeans, a black collared shirt with white bird silhouettes on the chest and flip-flops. He was smiling and immediately went in for a hug.

We walked out back and sat in metal chairs on a gravel patio that overlooked the highway and Ollie’s Duck & Dive, a grill around the corner that Shaun frequents.

Mostly we talked about life and all the ways ambition can wreck it, how to be happy and, of course, his road back to next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Just don’t call it a comeback. Shaun cringes when he hears people say that.

“I’m like, Fuck, not really, man,” he said, laughing. “Like, I’m still the guy.”

Of course, he’s not just The Guy. Shaun White is a living legend and has been for the better part of a decade. He has won 13 Winter X Games gold medals in addition to two Olympic golds. He has been the face of America at the Winter Games for the past 12 years. On a snowboard, he has done impossible things, and he’s made it look not only easy but fun. He rides fearlessly—in control but uninhibited. He looks, in a word, free.

At least, he did until 2014, at the Sochi Games.

There, Shaun failed to win a medal.

Since then, he’s done some thinking and changed his life, and on top of his mind these days is what the Olympics truly means to people. “I never really thought about it before, what it represents,” Shaun said. The Olympics used to be just another touchstone for the competitor in him, his two gold medals representing the greatest achievement possible in his craft. But now? “Now, I’m proud,” he said. “I’m going to win medals and to show that I can do it and all these other reasons. But another big reason is: You’re winning for the U.S. For your home.”

I wondered what an Olympic medal might mean to the country under Donald Trump’s presidency. Shaun’s good friend, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, told me that Shaun’s trip to Pyeongchang is compelling—that what he accomplishes could be an escape from Trump that America needs. “This is his fourth Olympics, right?” Hawk said. “Just that story alone is enough to engage people and make them maybe focus on this as opposed to the tweet storm.”

He added: “My hope for the Olympics is that Shaun wins and the president doesn’t tweet about it.”

When I relayed Hawk’s wishes to Shaun, he laughed. “Shaun did it!” he said, channelling Trump’s Twitter voice. “Send in the Patriot Missile! He destroyed the halfpipe!”

Shaun then shrugged, and took on a more reflective tone. “I’m strapping this thing on my feet. It’s just this piece of wood, and we’re going down the mountain.” He continued: “But that’s sports. That’s what sports can do. It’ll distract me from all this stuff going on. That’s exciting. I hope that I can do that for others.”

But that’s not all Shaun can do, at least not in Hawk’s imagination. “It’ll provide some relief, I think, and it’ll make people proud,” Hawk said. “But it will give them hope, too.”

Shaun can remind people of something simple: “Just keep pushing forward,” Hawk said. “You can make it.”

“People ask me when I got over Sochi,” Shaun said, shaking his head. “I’m like, Fucking got over Sochi? I never got over Sochi. I’ll never get over Sochi. It’s part of me now. It’s like falling off your bike and scarring your elbow. You’re not like, Oh, now I’ll never try to jump off curbs with my bike anymore.

Bleacher Report

If anything, Shaun is more The Guy now than he was during Sochi. That’s where he got lost.

At Sochi, he tried to do something no snowboarder had ever done before—win gold in superpipe as well as slopestyle, an event in which competitors complete tricks through an elaborate obstacle course. He pulled out of slopestyle at the last minute—mostly because an ankle injury threatened to knock him out of both events—and then didn’t even medal in superpipe, crashing in one of his three heats and placing fourth.

This time around, no slopestyle for him. Reason being—he paused before saying it, taking a quiet moment to think—“I just decided to be kind to myself.”

Shaun told me that he had recently been reading a self-help book and taken some of its advice to heart. “I picked up this one in an airport, Being Happy!, or whatever, and it was just: ‘Be Happy.’ Literally, that is the first thing!” He laughed and added, “It sounds like such a blatant thing. And it’s so hard.”

Finish this story at Bleacher Report.