If you’ve read my B/R Mag story about Shaun White’s return to the Winter Olympics following a disappointing 2014 in Sochi, you know that in 2015 he hired Esther Lee to be his personal physical therapist. Lee was previously the personal PT to Serena and Venus Williams.
And she had a major impact on Shaun and his life beyond what you would think.
That’s largely because she has traveled the world learning a tremendous amount about human health, not just of body but also of mind. Which, really, is just another product of the body.
She’s intuitive, empathetic, and graceful—and confident enough to speak her mind.
She shows up very little in the story, which was a bummer but unfortunately necessary—if I put everything I learned into the story it would probably become a decent book.
Still, I thanked Esther profusely afterward.She spends so much time with Shaun—traveling with him frequently—that she knows him better, in some ways, than he might know himself, and she answered tons of questions about Shaun that I simply didn’t have time to ask him.
This helped me understand him in ways I never could have otherwise, and Esther helped me feel comfortable depicting Shaun as this changed, flawed, yet still heroic sort of character we can feel good about believing in.
That’s something I always wrestle with in this work. I like believing in the best of people, and I love writing stories that are honest but also inspirational—that show us how these famous athletes can survive horrible struggles and do amazing things, yes, but also in a way that, I hope, shows us that we can all do that.
But how well can you really know someone who is so famous? I constantly question whether I am seeing—and later, writing about—part of them that’s real, versus part of them they want me to see so that I help further their “brand” and the story they want to tell the world.
Anyway, I spent enough time with Shaun to feel like I knew him well enough to be comfortable portraying him how I did, but Esther really helped me with that as much as anything. Shaun had told me that the two of them had become close, often having long, reflective conversations. As I got to know her, I saw why—she seemed thoughtful, kind, and honest.
I first met her kind of by accident. We were both standing next to each other at the bottom of the halfpipe as we watched the Dew Tour qualifying round. Shaun had told me a lot about her, though, so I just introduced myself.
She was quiet and seemed withdrawn at first, but as it goes with many people who come off that way, it’s only because she, like me, really doesn’t do so great with small talk. Get us thinking and laughing a little, though, and just be willing to dip into the deep end a bit, and we’ll talk for days.
That was Esther.
Somehow we got to talking about Elf, and I almost fell down in front of her and everyone else when I acted out the scene where Buddy tries an escalator for the first time. She laughed—everyone laughed—and that broke the ice.
(So there’s a good journalism tip, kids: Want someone to trust you? Just make a fool out of yourself and laugh about it.)
Then we got to talking about the Jim Carrey Netflix documentary Jim and Andy, which took us well into the deep end. (It’s a mind-bending look at identity and what makes us who we are, and the joy to be found in letting go of all that. Another blog post on that coming soon.)
We talked a good bit during the hour it took for the qualifying round to end. We were supposed to meet up later, but she ended up going back to L.A. early, so we talked on the phone a few different times for probably two hours total.
One of my favorite things she eventually told me was that Shaun struggles with confidence, just like anyone else. When he started getting back into snowboarding in mid-2015, the sport had already evolved dramatically. Other guys were throwing tricks that legitimately intimidated him. And on top of that, he knew he would return to the sport under the weight of everyone else’s expectations of him.
“He has to work on his confidence some days,” Esther said. “It’s kind of crazy—the world sees Shaun as a legend in snowboarding already, but he’s still human. He still doubts himself. He still gets nervous. He still has moments where he’s just struggling. Everyone else thinks he’s the greatest, so they don’t even think about him going through these normal human emotions.”
If you’ve read the story, you know that he spent much of the year from summer 2015 to fall 2016 overhauling his life, changing up his staff, his training regimen, even getting surgery on an ankle that had hurt since 2009.
But he began taking it all too far. Some days Shaun’s mind never stopped. (Still doesn’t sometimes.) “He really thinks deeply about things,” Esther said. “He’ll stay up at night thinking about something, to the detriment of his sleep.”
One day, while talking with Esther about some big, new thing he needed to do, she stopped him.
She told him one of my favorite things in all my research for this story:
“Look—I feel like you’re standing on this plot of land full of amazing things, but you are at the fence, looking over, and being like, Gosh, I want that, I want that, I want that. Just turn around and look. You have such incredible things already at your hands, that you’ve worked your ass off for. A wonderful house, this awesome dog, great friends, an awesome girlfriend, this family that’s so supportive of you. You have so many things to be thankful for, and that people would die to have. Get away from the fence!”
Esther also gave him a book called Boundaries by psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Shaun read it within a week. It reinforced what he’d to discern on his own: it’s OK to not live up to everyone else’s expectations of him.
Those expectations are about everyone else, not him, anyway.
And when people get angry at him for not doing what they think, that’s not his fault, especially if he knows he’s doing his genuine best.
And he learned that it’s OK to let go of things—or people—causing him pain.
It’s OK to just be kind to yourself.