The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shaun White is bigger than snowboarding. That’s what made failure so hard.

Shaun White competed in his final run during the men’s halfpipe final of the U.S. Grand Prix last month in Snowmass, Colo. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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Shaun White wasn’t used to falling. Flipping, twirling, watching the world spin wildly with the iconic snowboarder always serving as the point of axis? Sure. But falling, let alone failing, was completely foreign.

So when he left the Sochi Olympics, his status as a snowboarding legend still secure in everyone else’s mind, White felt an emptiness. He was still a two-time Olympic champion,and among the most marketable winter sports athletes ever. But to him, none of that seemed to matter.

“Nobody realizes what it’s like to come home and, like, you can’t escape it,” he explained recently. “You’re filling up your car with gas, and somebody’s like, ‘Hey, man, sorry about what happened.’ Right when you think it’s gone, you’re at the grocery store and the guy’s checking your items, like, ‘Hey, man, sorry what happened.’ ”

In the three Olympics before Sochi, the United States had won seven of nine possible halfpipe medals, including White’s golds in Turin and Vancouver. But White crashed on his final run in Sochi, finishing in fourth place, and the Americans were shut out for the first time since the sport was introduced at the 1998 Nagano Games.

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As he sets his sights on redemption at these PyeongChang Games, White, 31, feels he has learned more from that loss than he did the two big wins.

“For so many years doing the same thing, it just kind of, like, lost the luster,” he said.

That loss in Sochi launched a four-year journey. He took time to catch his breath; he questioned his priorities; he reorganized the team around him. He already had gone from being a floppy-haired 19-year-old who looked like he had just rolled off the beach in 2006 to a 27-year-old businessman, the CEO of a megabrand for whom snowboarding was only part of the portfolio in 2014.

The question White had to answer as he began preparing for PyeongChang: Who exactly did he want to be?

“It’s funny looking back now,” he said. “I’m like, what was I thinking? What was I feeling? It’s just kind of like going through the motions, which is unfortunate. It’s like being trapped in this movie where you knew this horrible ending was on its way and then it happened, and I was just kind of left to deal with it afterward.”

Frustrated in Sochi

Sochi never felt right. White didn’t have the steak he prefers before a competition. The lodging was messed up. The conditions weren’t ideal, and the snow felt like slush. Even though he had the tricks and the confidence to win, it just felt off.

“It was just frustrating. I mean, think about it: You’re standing there at the top, and I’m like, ‘I could totally win this thing,’ and it just — I don’t know,” he said. “There’s so much buildup and so much effort and work and all these things, and you know, I wasn’t really enjoying myself as much at that time.”

Each Olympics has been different. Entering Russia, he sought to up the stakes. That season he competed in both halfpipe and slopestyle, an event that calls on riders to perform tricks off a variety of features. He qualified in both but ultimately decided to focus on halfpipe.

“I was tired,” he said. “I was biting off more than I could chew.”

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Rather than leaving Sochi with two medals, he went home empty-handed and heavy-hearted. It took time to process the disappointment.

“In my mind, the way I was operating at the time was, like, if you don’t win, everything else before is erased,” he said.

He finally realized that everything about Sochi was wrong, and he needed to overhaul his approach on and off the mountain if the next Olympic cycle was going to be any different. He started to realize what others already had noticed: Being Shaun White isn’t always easy.

“There’s going to be ups and downs with competing, and being in the limelight, the pressures and expectations that go along with that,” said Mike Jankowski, the U.S. snowboarding and freeskiing head coach. “By no means was his love for the sport gone, but there’s always ups and downs when you have an athlete who’s had such a long and successful career.”

Settling scores

The snowboard community can be a tightknit group. They travel together, share sponsors, appear at the same events. While White was always the sport’s most recognizable figure, as his profile grew and demands on his time increased, he was both at the top of the mountain and nowhere near it.

“He’s one of the most fierce competitors ever. But you don’t always see him out, practicing his tricks,” said snowboarder Chase Josey, who’s making his Olympic debut in PyeongChang. “But he has those tricks on lock, so he can come out on competition day and blow doors away.”

There wasn’t necessarily animosity, but White was his own entity, a brand and an icon but not always one of the guys. He was in his own tax bracket, and his status and fame put him in his own world. Others noticed.

White wasn’t being aloof, he said. He just prefers to go at his pace. He enjoys the company of other snowboarders, but he’s aware that they’re also his competitors.

“I didn’t really enjoy riding with the other riders because it was like, they’re my direct competition,” he said. “I would ride with certain people, but it just became hard to hang with the guys that you were competing against, honestly. Think of any sport: It’s not like after the World Series everyone goes and gets beers. It’s tough.”

Even post-Sochi, White maintains his independence. But some have noticed he’s more accessible. More humble, some say.

“When you win all the time, it comes with jealousy and other feelings,” freeskier Gus Kenworthy said. “I’m sure people have valid reasons for liking him and valid reasons for not liking him. But it’s always easy to not like the guy who’s winning. I definitely think he’s less polarizing now.”

White shrugs off some of these changes, but he did take inventory of his relationships after Sochi, rethinking how he spends his time and his energy.

“I called my parents, and I was like, ‘Hey, remember when this happened? Like, I’m not okay with that. We should talk,’ ” he said. “Or, like I called my brother — my brother had been working for me for years — and we got to a great place in our careers of designing products, all these things and we just kind of split ways and we never really talked about it. . . . We never really addressed it, and I never even asked, ‘What are you doing now?’ I haven’t really checked in to see what he was up to.

“You know the people in your life that kind of get pushed aside, unfortunately, because you’re so gung-ho on achieving these goals and dreams and things.”

Fountain of youth

White is a member of Team USA, but he also is a team unto himself, and he’s surrounded himself with new people: a new coach, new training partner, a new publicist, a physical therapist that travels with him from event to event.

“I changed all those things that were bugging me,” he said. “They’re no longer issues anymore.”

White amicably parted ways with Bud Keene, who had coached him through his first three Olympic runs, and late in 2015 started working with J.J. Thomas, the 2002 Olympic bronze medalist turned coach. He prepped for the season by riding with Thomas and Toby Miller, a 17-year-old up-and-comer. Miller was just 12 when he met White, and the following year, White invited him to ride with him in Australia. They spent eight months before this season traveling the world, snowboarding in California, Oregon and twice in New Zealand.

“When I hang out with Shaun, it honestly doesn’t feel like there’s an age difference,” Miller said. “It feels like we’re both 17.”

White said that’s a credit to Miller.

“Toby is bringing that youthful sort of excitement. He just wants to do everything there is,” White said. “When you’re with someone young, they just kind of bring it out. He basically has some sort of gaming system on him at all times. So he’s like, ‘Oh, I just got the new Call of Duty,’ and there I am, up to at 3 a.m., yelling at 8-year-olds online.”

White has remained plenty busy off the mountain. Even before his high-profile win at the 2006 Games, he has been a major coup for sponsors. But he also was always busy exploring other ventures: hawking apparel, playing music, designing skateboards and BMX bikes. He took on a lighter snowboarding schedule in the year following Sochi, and his company, Shaun White Enterprises, began ramping up its promotions business. He had purchased a controlling stake in a music, arts and action sports festival called Air + Style and played an active role in staging events in places such as Australia and Los Angeles.

“The young guys don’t own companies and enterprises,” said Thomas, White’s coach. “It’s really an edge not having all the components that he has. He knows that. He’s been really good lately at focusing, though, and simplifying his life during the season.”

2022? How about 2020?

In recent years, White’s name often was absent from the sport’s leader boards, and he passed on many events. He hasn’t won an X-Games title since the year before Sochi, and when he opened last season with an 18th-place finish, some started to wonder openly whether he had the time or interest in returning to the top.

White, though, felt he was always pointed toward 2018. Even after a pair of training crashes in New Zealand last fall — both of which resulted in hospital visits — he considered this season a slow build to PyeongChang. And sure enough, though he hadn’t won an event this season and had yet to lock up a spot on the Olympic team, he turned in one of the best performances of his career Jan. 13 at the U.S. Grand Prix of Snowmass — and it happened to come in front of the same judges who will score the PyeongChang contest. He aimed big and landed everything: a frontside double cork 1440, cab double cork 1080 and double McTwist 1260, among his tricks. He earned a score of 100, only the second perfect mark awarded to a male snowboarder. White claimed the other, as well, back in 2012.

“He’s as good as ever,” Thomas said, “and still getting better.”

White is careful to point out that PyeongChang is just another chapter; it’s not the last one. Not only does he see the 2022 Beijing Games on the horizon, but he has his sights set on the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, too, where skateboarding will be contested for the first time.

After these Olympics, he intends to return home and immediately begin skateboarding, hoping to juggle the two sports for the next couple of years. Those on the mountain stopped doubting White a long time ago. They know he can dabble in a variety of ventures and still carry the sport on his shoulders.

“Shaun is actually superhuman,” Kenworthy said. “I don’t even know how he does what he does. . . . Shaun’s an actual alien. He’s, like, the best competitor ever.”

And White said he’s a different competitor, too, one who has been seasoned by a career full of triumphs and one stinging, enlightening defeat.

“I’m seriously having more fun,” he said. “Honestly, I’m just enjoying it much more.”

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