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 at this point, 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.”
I first met Shaun in sunny Malibu back in late August, a few weeks 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 a valley full of trees between us and the highway plus 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 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 Olympics 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.