ZHANGJIAKOU, China—This really is it for Shaun White.
During a reflective, sometimes emotional news conference Saturday, not far from the halfpipe where he’ll take his last competitive ride, the 35-year-old said that, yes, he’ll be hanging ’em up for good after the medal round next week.
“In my mind, I’ve decided this will be my last competition,” he said.
It’s a decision that’s been building since a soul-sucking training stop in Austria in November. He was dealing with nagging remnants from injuries to his knee … and back … and ankle. He got lost on the mountain with the sun going down. It was one of those rare times when snowboarding didn’t feel fun anymore.
“A sad and surreal moment,” he called it. “But joyous, as well. I kind of reflected on things I’ve done and looked at the sun going down and went, ‘Wow, next time I’m here, I won’t be stressed about learning tricks or worried about some competition thing.’”
He is soaking in every moment on this fifth trip to the Olympics, and over his 45-minute session with the media, he fielded an equal number of questions about his past as about what’s to come over the next seven days and beyond.
“I have some runs in my head that I’d like to do,” he said. “And it’s all about visualizing and making that happen the ‘day of.’”
Though he refused to take it off the table, those runs probably will not include a triple cork—the three-flip trick that Ayumu Hirano of Japan has landed twice in competition this season, but has not won with, because he could not link another trick to it.
Back in 2013, White worked on that trick for a time. Then, a different jump—the double cork 1440— became the hottest thing in the halfpipe, so he abandoned the triple to work on that. The rest is history: The 1440 was not enough for him to win in Sochi, but four years ago in Pyeongchang, he linked two of them back to back and took his third gold medal.
“I’d never done that combination of tricks before and just put it down to win,” White said. “I mean, it’s a legacy performance.”
His legacy goes well beyond that.
By making a choice that was unpopular in many circles—embracing competition, and embracing the Olympics—he took the entire sport with him and made the whole endeavor more mass-marketable, in large part because every sport needs a star.
He also set the bar in a game that treasures progression above all else. In 2006, he was the first man to land back-to-back 1080s. In 2010, it was the Double McTwist 1260—“The Tomahawk,” he calls it; it’s a trick that’s still relevant today.
Though others started landing the 1440 and linking two together before him, White did it best, and when the stakes were the highest.
But when asked what would suffice as a “good” Olympics this time around, he wasn’t talking about 1440s or triple corks or gold medals.
This has been a rough season for him—including an ankle injury, a bout with COVID-19, a late unscheduled trip to Switzerland to secure his Olympic spot, and, most recently, a training plan that got thrown off schedule during his stay in Colorado in January.
“I approach every competition as, you’ve got to be content with your own riding,” White said. “And as long as you can go out there and put down your best, and lay it out there, then you can walk away, and in your mind, be good with that.”
White says he’s toggling between trying to enjoy every moment of the last big contest week of his life and knowing there is work to do when the halfpipe opens for training Sunday.
“I’m sort of pinching myself, with how lucky I am to still be here at this age,” he said.
But it’s hard not to look back. He told about how when he was a kid, everything he did, day in and day out, was wrapped around snowboarding. “I don’t know how many kids out there aspire to be a cowboy and then really get to be a cowboy,” he said.
Asked what headline he would put on his career, he said he looks back at the kid he was and thinks the perfect line would be: “We did it!’”
By Eddie Pells