“This Has Been My Life, This Sport” | The Shaun White Interview

He’s been the world’s most famous snowboarder for nearly two decades, but as a visibly-emotional White told us in Laax, an awful lot has changed recently

Above: Shaun White at the 2022 Laax Open (Photo: Marcel Lämmerhirt)

“Shaun White is bigger than snowboarding,” ran the Washington Post headline the last time the world was gearing up for the Winter Olympics. As a statement of fact, it was hard to argue with. After all, as the article put it, White was already “the CEO of a megabrand for whom snowboarding was only part of the portfolio”. But as a sentiment, it wasn’t difficult to see why it stuck in the craw for many snowboarders.

White was – and still is – the most famous rider in the world. But it’s long been argued that he’s a poor representative for the sport. Sure, by the time Pyeongchang rolled around, he’d ditched his band and cut out other distractions to concentrate on his riding. But his narrow, halfpipe-focussed approach (when have you ever seen Shaun shredding pow?), his open aversion to hanging out with fellow riders, and his ultra-competitive public persona still seemed to run counter to what snowboarding was all about. You didn’t have to scroll far down comment threads to find people saying that White wasn’t a real snowboarder at all.

“White was – and still is – the most famous rider in the world. But it’s long been argued that he’s a poor representative for the sport”

Shaun boosting out of the Laax superpie (Photo: Philipp Ruggli)

In the intervening four years, if anything, White’s celebrity has only grown, helped along by that third gold medal in Korea. And yet, the Shaun White who spent 20 minutes talking to Whitelines after the Laax Open last week didn’t fit any of the commonly-held stereotypes.

He’d just finished in third place behind the man most likely to beat him in Beijing, Ayumu Hirano – a result that would previously have disappointed him – but instead he seemed genuinely stoked, jumping up and down, hugging other riders warmly, and yelling “we’re going to China!” And then, as the TV cameras that would once have hung on his every word moved off to circle around his heir apparent, he gave a remarkably candid interview about his state of mind as he heads into a record-breaking fifth Olympics.  

“And yet, the Shaun White who spent 20 minutes talking to Whitelines after the Laax Open last week didn’t fit any of the commonly-held stereotypes”

Participation is the Prize

“I’m just so happy to be going [to the games],” he said, explaining that his place on the US Team hadn’t been secure until that evening. “I’m so happy to hit the podium, and to be a part of all this. What a wonderful ending to my last competition at Laax”. Regardless of what happens in Beijing, White confirmed he’ll be retiring from competition for good after the games. But perhaps more remarkably, given his famously competitive nature, he also said he didn’t really mind what happens in Beijing. “At this point in my career, I’ve been to the Olympics and won, and I’ve been to the Olympics and lost,” he said. “So I’m really open for anything. It’s like: ‘Hey, it’s my last go. Let’s have fun, let’s enjoy it’.” 

Has snowboarding’s most ferociously competitive rider really lost his fire? Well, not entirely. “I’m a competitor, so this is like the building blocks – I’m hoping to peak just when I get to the games,” he said. But there’s no doubt his mindset has shifted somewhat. “At this point in my life – how do I describe it? – what got me here won’t get me the rest of the way. The feeling of ‘if I don’t win the Olympics it’s all over, and my life is over,’ that’s how I used to think.” He laughs. “At times on this journey, I’ve tried to get into that mental headspace, and it doesn’t work for me. I get discouraged, I get burnt out and I’m over it.”

“I’m really open for anything. It’s like: ‘Hey, it’s my last go. Let’s have fun, let’s enjoy it’.”

Learning to relinquish that win-at-all-costs attitude has helped carry White through what, by all accounts, was a difficult qualification campaign – blighted by bad luck, broken bindings, and then a bout of Covid. “It’s given me strength for this whole process,” he said. But his new approach to competition will also doubtless serve him well if things don’t go his way in Beijing.

Because make no mistake, White has a mountain to climb if he wants to top the podium again. His first run in Laax saw him string together back-to-back 1260s. Hirano’s involved back-to-back 14s – a combo that White has only landed once, and that was in Pyeongchang, four years ago.

Has He Still Got What it Takes?  

Of course, White famously thrives under pressure, and only an idiot would bet against him being able to pull out something special when he needs it most. But listening to him bat away questions about halfpipe triple corks – which both Ayumu Hirano and his compatriot Ruka Hirano tried in Laax – it was hard to escape the feeling that he doesn’t have the latest trick in the bag. “I tried [a triple] in 2013, so I’m no stranger to that,” he said. “But you know a triple’s yet to win a halfpipe contest” [which is true – but only because no-one’s landed it in a complete run yet] “and I’ve got two weeks of crunch time to get ready. So we’ll see”. 

Shaun on his way to third place at the Laax Open 2022 (Photo: Philipp Ruggli)

If our hunch is correct, this will be the first time White heads into an Olympics knowing that he’s not kept up in snowboarding’s latest arms race. In some ways, this makes his commitment to the games all the more impressive. After all, having won two medals as a young man, failed to podium in Sochi, but then staged a fairy-tale comeback in Pyeongchang, White has nothing to prove. It would be easy for him to walk away, his record as the most successful Olympic snowboarder ever entirely unblemished. So what keeps him coming back?

“You forget that like, man, I’ve dedicated every bit of me to this sport, and…” he tails off, seemingly taken aback by the tears that have sprung to his eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m gonna get upset,” he says. He takes a moment, before laughing it off.  “It’s just… I’ve seen the sport from hand-dug halfpipes to 22-foot pipes at night with [all] the fireworks. This has been my life, this sport. And, I love it.”

“If our hunch is correct, this will be the first time White heads into an Olympics knowing that he’s not kept up in snowboarding’s latest arms race”

One of the most common criticisms thrown White’s way down the years is that he’s not given much back to snowboarding – as if he somehow owes it to the sport to turn up and sprinkle his stardust on every contest, or spend his winnings supporting the grassroots. But all of that conveniently overlooks the amount of blood, sweat and tears it’s taken to spend this long at the top. And while you might think that Shaun’s retirement plans would involve swanning off into the celebrity sunset, he says nothing could be further from the truth.

“I’m never gonna leave this sport, I’ll be here,” he says. “Retirement is maybe different in other sports, but within snowboarding, there’s a place for you, there’s a community that supports you. I always sit there and think about how I got a helping hand from Burton when I was a kid. I’ve started my own company, WhiteSpace, and maybe, to be that for the next generation could be amazing.”

A Love – Hate Relationship

Publicly, White has always accepted that a certain amount of hate comes with the territory. “Because I’ve been ‘the name’ in the sport, you get a lot of love and you get a lot of hate,” is how he puts it. If anything, he says, the haters only used to spur him on. “I was like ‘OK, hate me. I want it. Give me that attitude cos it’s gonna motivate me.’” As he nears retirement age, however, his attitude seems to be mellowing.

“I’m 35, and in my first games, I was 19,” he says. “I almost got there when I was 15, and I’m just so proud to be riding at a high level, after this many years. What a career, what a run. I’m glad to hand the torch to the next generation.”

“If anything, he says, the haters only used to spur him on”

This shift is understandable. Of course Shaun White in his mid-30s is a different person to Shaun White the long-haired teenager. What’s more interesting is that just as White’s approach seems to be mellowing, many snowboarders’ take on him seems to be changing too. Certainly, among the core crowd who stayed up the hill to watch the halfpipe finals in Laax – one of the largest I’d ever seen at a halfpipe contest – we heard nothing but respect, bordering on affection. It wasn’t just respect for his achievements either, which was always there, but for the man himself.

It’s something White felt too, from the top of the halfpipe. “I’m happy you say that about the crowd,” he says. “I remember thinking there’d be a lot of standoff sort of attitude at the pipe, cos that’s what it used to be. But now it’s a weird but beautiful thing, where some of the competitors are like, ‘I played your video game,’ or ‘could you sign my shirt?’.” After years of questioning his motives, his lifestyle, and his core credentials, are snowboarders finally learning to love Shaun White? That’s certainly how it felt in Laax. 

Both Shaun and the spectators appeared pretty stoked to see him on the podium (Photo: Christian Stadler)

An Emotional Farewell

For his own part White has become increasingly nostalgic as his retirement draws closer. “Everything’s got this last dance glow to it,” he says. “Final round, you know?” Since qualifying, his Instagram feed has turned into a throwback, with posts showing runs from each of his Olympic appearances so far. All are impressive – even the fluffed run in 2014 that saw him finish outside the medals. But the one that stands out for me – and shows just how much has changed – is the video of his final run from Vancouver 2010.

This was White in his imperial pomp – he’d just won his second Olympic medal with a run to spare – but it was also White at his most-reviled. He was fresh off the back of pulling a sly one on his rival Kevin Pearce, entering an extra contest so that Pearce couldn’t win the 2008 TTR league outright. Fiercely competitive to a fault, he obviously felt he had something to prove. This second run should’ve been a victory lap, but as he puts it in his Instagram post, instead of taking it easy, he decided that to “cement myself in the sport’s history” he wouldn’t hold “anything back”. He hadn’t even needed his latest trick, the Tomahawk, to win the gold, but now he decided to throw it down anyway – as if to rub his rivals’ noses in it.

“White has become increasingly nostalgic as his retirement draws closer”

I found myself thinking of that run as I watched his second lap in Switzerland. OK, so the Laax Open isn’t the Olympics, but once again White had achieved what he’d come to do with a run to spare. This time however, instead of a terminator-style showcase of technicality, he threw a series of massive, stylish straight airs, with his signature frontside five, aka ‘the skyhook’, as his only spin. What was behind that decision? “Well, I had locked up my position, so in the spirit of snowboarding, I was just like ‘I’m gonna go big,’” he says. “The spirit of snowboarding” isn’t something you’d always have associated with Shaun Roger White, and yet here he was, paying tribute.

As he heads into his final games, the world’s most famous rider is still, probably, “bigger than snowboarding”, and will continue to be so, whatever happens in Beijing. It’s nice to know though, that he’s also not above sending it for snowboarders – or the simple pleasures of “going big”. 

Will we see one last podium for Sean in Beijing? Either way, he”ll give his career a proper send-off under the lights (Photo: Sam Mellish)
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