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.”