For Fun, White Is on Board
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Shaun White feels a lot like a beginner right now, which is more than a little disconcerting for one of the best skateboarders in the world. He has forgotten almost everything. Tricks he once performed on instinct are faint memories that tease him.
At the local YMCA skate park he helped create, White spends full days diving into the halfpipe trying to jog loose some sort of recollection. Middle-school kids who idolize the 19-year-old professional become his coaches, helping reconstruct White's skating repertoire. Sometimes, White emerges from the pipe beaming with the thrill of rediscovery. Just as often, he wipes out and hits the wood with the thud of a novice. One day in late May, White couldn't skate because his collarbone was "kind of sticking out."
As a two-sport star who spends eight months each year exclusively snowboarding, White struggles to revive his skateboarding at the beginning of every summer. This year, though, his challenge is even more exaggerated. Since White last skateboarded, he won a gold medal in the snowboarding halfpipe event at the Olympics, redesigned a clothing line, signed a videogame contract and seized the social life of a national celebrity. He posed on the red carpet with Pamela Anderson and attended a movie premiere with Al Gore.
White rarely -- if ever -- thought about skateboarding, which means he hurriedly must prepare for a summer during which he hopes to win gold medals at the X Games and on the Dew Action Sports Tour.
"The last year has just been so rad that I can't even believe it all happened," White said. "Ever since the Olympics, it's just been madness. I love it. It just never slows down."
White decided quickly after he won his medal in February that he wanted to seize every unique opportunity gold afforded him, so he flew out of Turin a day later for an exhausting media blitz. He went to New York to shoot the cover of Rolling Stone, to Los Angeles for the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno," back to New York for the "Martha Stewart Show" and finally back to California for more interviews. By the time White boarded another plane headed for the Closing Ceremonies in Turin, he had not slept, he said, in almost a week.
"Those two weeks basically changed everything," said Jesse White, Shaun's older brother and manager. "Everybody wanted a piece of his time. It was like, 'Wow, maybe this is all a little too much.' "
But what some wearily saw as burdens and distractions, White heralded as opportunities for adventure. He almost never declined a chance to revel in his escalating celebrity. He accepted invitations to Oscar parties in Los Angeles and enjoyed, he said, "skeezing out on the red carpet." He snowboarded in Park City, Utah, with talk-show host Montel Williams. He met Gore and initially tried to greet the former presidential candidate with a fist pound, only switching to a handshake at the last second.
The carefree teenager nicknamed the Flying Tomato because of his long red hair collided comically with mainstream celebrities, and each encounter resulted in awkward, unintentional comedy. A few months ago, White accepted courtside seats to a Knicks game in New York and sat down next to Regis Philbin.
"It was so gnarly, dude, and I'd been on his show ["Live with Regis and Kelly"] a couple times, so I basically figured we were homies," White said. "I yelled over to him, and I was like, 'Yo, Reg, what up?' And then get this: He called me the Red Onion! Dude, it was so epic. It was totally rad."
Unlike so many gold medal winners who, after the Olympics, droned on about devotion and commitment, White never took himself -- or his accomplishment -- too seriously. Why not just make a gold medal the world's most prestigious platform for a prank? Once, when girls approached White and asked for his number, he passed on silver medalist Danny Kass's number instead. In turn, Kass published White's cellphone number in Snowboarder Magazine, forcing him to buy a new phone. "Yeah, that was not very rad," White said. "I'm going to print his number somewhere and get him back."