KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — COLUMN | What happens when the story you came to write doesn’t become the story anymore? What happens when that story does a 180-degree turn in mid-air, then a 540 and finally a dizzying 1260, spinning your perception completely around?
I had heard Shaun White had become too big for his snowboard bindings. He didn’t hang with other members of the close-knit Team USA community. His “people” shut down halfpipes at ski resorts so White could ride by himself. He wasn’t the cool kid we once called the Flying Tomato anymore, a thatch of reddish-orange hair rising 22 feet off a wall of ice.
No, he was now the Descending Diva — S.W.E., Shaun White Enterprises, the $15-mil-per-year action sports icon — the world’s richest, most famous and now most isolated extreme star.
He needed to be put back in place, I thought. He needed to remember the, well, dudeliness that got him here.
Then the story forked. Maybe I should explain.
About an hour before White competed, I met a freckle-faced, St. Louis kid with a stars-and-stripes beanie and a little miniature flag named Ben Hughes, his mother Liz, and their friend, Kaitlyn Lyles. Turns out Ben and Kaitlyn are here because of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Ben got a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 6 years old. He underwent 21 / 2 years of radiation and chemotherapy. Before he finished his treatments at the end of 2012, he had found two new inspirations in life: snowboarding and Shaun White. He loved both.
Kaitlyn learned of White while watching the 2010 Vancouver Games on television from her hospital bed at Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Pensacola, Fla., where she underwent chemotherapy for osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
“I was literally in that hospital room for all of February,” she said. “Shaun White is what really got me through. I loved that even after he clinched the gold medal, he still went for it, trying tricks and refusing to coast when he won.”
Kaitlyn playfully vowed not to leave Sochi before she was Mrs. Shaun White.
I asked when the kids would get to meet White.
“They don’t,” Liz said. “That’s not part of the deal. We just get to watch. They go home Friday after we see a hockey game. This is our only day here. I know. What can you do?”
In journalism school, they tell you early on not to get involved in the story. Keep professional distance from subjects and sources to maintain objectivity or something like that. But these kids were thisclose to their Olympic dream. Shoot, Kaitlyn was the length of two snowboards away from her future husband. Two cancer survivors had traveled almost 6,000 miles to get within maybe seven feet of their athletic hero and some rule or protocol was going to forbid them from actually meeting?
Hell with Olympic rules.
I went over to Nick Alexakos, press officer for the U.S. snowboard team, told him about Ben, the kid behind me in the beanie. I held back on Kaitlyn, thinking her chances of having a restraining order put on her were greater than meeting him if I mentioned the Mrs. White stuff.
So now here comes White, finishing up with the TV reporters and about to meet up with the print media in the mixed zone, about 20 yards from Ben and Kaitlyn. “Hey, if I lift that 10-year-old kid over the barricade, will I get in trouble?” I ask my clear-headed colleague, Rick Maese, who gave me the nyet look. “I wouldn’t do it, dude.”
I was torn when White suddenly made the decision for me. Alexakos directed him to where Ben was, their eyes met and that was it.
I don’t know if White has caught more rarefied air in that moment, catapulting himself in one leap over the barricade. I do know one 10-year-old’s life will never be the same.
He high-fived them, they all kind of hugged as Ben shook his head in awe.
Said Kaitlyn: “I’m like, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh, my God. I love him. He’s cuter in person.”
Liz Hughes finally covered her mouth as tears tumbled from her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said, grabbing my arm. “Thank you.”
“You’re . . . You’re . . .” I couldn’t speak. I just turned away, looked up at the mountains and wiped my eyes, finishing the “Welcome” part a minute later.
You think Ben was shocked? I came here ready to prick a legend’s balloon, resolute that the carefree kid I met eight years ago in Torino, who called his dad “The Rog,” was now an out-of-touch celebrity that didn’t connect with real people anymore.
And then that angle crumbled beneath a wall of emotion.
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
The truth is, it was gone the moment I met his mother behind the stands hours earlier, before White had hurdled that barrier. I asked Cathy White what she thought of the backlash against her son, including competitors using social media to skewer him for either pulling out of the slopestyle event or not being one of the guys. She felt bad for him, saying, “It’s funny: They will tweet things, but up on the mountain they will be right next to him and not say anything.”
She reminded me Shaun is a survivor of two open-heart surgeries as a young child, that he belongs to the “Zipper Club,” with children whose chests have been surgically cut open. He gives 8 percent of his $15 million a year to the St. Jude’s children’s fund. Shaun’s sister, Cathy’s daughter, underwent 19 brain surgeries as a child.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone this, but when he was on that hospital bed during the second surgery and I didn’t know what would happen to my child, a family friend came up and said something to me,” Cathy said. “We’re not religious and he was a Mormon, an LDS elder in the church. He said, ‘Don’t worry. Your son is going to make it. He is going to be all right. He is going to grow up and become somebody special.’ ”
Shaun White did. He grew up to become the greatest snowboarder in the world, so famous and admired that in an instant he could change a child’s life by clearing another barrier.
“I wish him the best of health,” White said of Ben, hours later at a news conference, saying he really enjoyed the encounter. “For me to be remembered in this sport, I don’t know if tonight makes or breaks my place in the sport. I would like to be remembered as more than a snowboarder. This is one big part of who I am, but it’s not all who I am. So yeah.”
Did I mention he wiped out in his first run of the finals and ended up finishing fourth without a medal, the first time in three Olympics he hasn’t won gold? No. That’s because, in the scheme of things, it’s not tragic.
“He’s a very good guy,” Liz Hughes said, her eyes welling again. “He does a lot of good things for many people.”
For every kid with a terminal disease, for every reporter convinced he has found the essence of who a person is, there is a moral to this story:
Never be too sure of where you’re going because you might just end up someplace else, crying on a mountaintop with a mother whose child’s cancer is thankfully in remission, with a rich and famous action sports star who delivered the Olympic moment of his life on the day he failed to win a medal.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.