Eight years ago, the boy wonder walked into a packed news conference, a teenager who couldn’t yet rent a car or buy a proper drink. His hair was long and red and already worth millions. Was he happy to be there? “Stoked, man.”
“I didn’t understand how big a thing the Olympics are until I showed up here,” Shaun White said at the time.
Back then, nobody understood how big a thing White and his youthful cohorts would become either. The action sports that would re-shape the Olympics menu and re-energize the Winter Games were ushered in by a brash group of talented, carefree athletes with big personalities and a thirst for danger.
And now? White is 27 years old, preparing for his third Olympics. His hair is short now. He’s earned millions of dollars. Maximizing his brand is a full-time job that requires its own staff. Snowboarding is just part of what he does — there’s a rock band, sporting apparel, a documentary he’s producing and more. He’s a full-fledged businessman now instead of a teenage snowboarder — unlike his competitors.
The age difference didn’t really hit White until he was competing at a recent event and the interviewer at the bottom of the run informed him he was the oldest snowboarder in the competition. “I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s a shocker,’ ” White said.
That age gap will be on full display in Sochi, where an iconic — but not quite graying — group of Olympians will compete alongside a new generation. Alpine skier Bode Miller, 36, a one-time wild child of the slopes, is preparing for his fifth Olympics. Kelly Clark joined the U.S. snowboard team in 2000 and was the first American to win a gold medal in that sport at the Olympics. Now 30, she’s back for a fourth Winter Games. Plus, there’s 35-year-old Nate Holland (snowboarding), 34-year-old Emily Cook (aerials), 32-year-old Nick Baumgartner (snowboarding), among others.
The Sochi Games won’t exactly resemble a 21st-century Rolling Stones concert. This year’s U.S. team also features 23 teenagers among its contingent of 230 Olympians, and includes 44 athletes who are 21 or younger.
But this might be the first Winter Olympics where the so-called youth movement starts to show its age. Clark started snowboarding before it was in the Olympics and before the X Games was a television magnet for the younger demographics. “Before it was cool,” as she puts it. Her personal growth can be charted through the Winter Games, from a carefree 18-year-old in Salt Lake City to an astute 30-year-old in Sochi.
“My ceiling will be the next generation’s floor,” Clark said.
The staying power of athletes such as Clark is rare. Even the biggest of young stars have few guarantees. Seth Wescott, 37, has won gold the only two times snowboard cross has been included in the Olympics, but a fourth-place finish in the X Games late last month meant he would be staying home this time. Three-time Olympian Lindsey Vonn, 29, will miss out on Sochi because of a lingering knee injury.
Freeskier Simon Dumont is just 27 but has been competing professionally since he was 13. He had won nine X Games medals and these 2014 Games marked the first time his specialty, the halfpipe, would be included in the Olympics. But he tore his ACL on Jan. 17, cutting short his season and likely ending his Olympic dream. Instead, 18-year-old Torin Yater-Wallace will represent the United States’ best hopes in ski halfpipe.
The difference in Dumont’s and Yater-Wallace’s generations is stark. The new crop is raised in a professional environment where sponsors are drooling for young stars. That wasn’t always the case.
“It’s definitely changed,” Dumont said, “I mean, now you can actually make a living now.”
When Dumont, Clark and to a lesser extent, White, first set foot on snow, their passions were hobbies. Now the Olympics has offered validation for their winter pursuits, and there’s no shortage of companies eager to attach their name to a young, hip brand.
In the 1990s, the International Olympic Committee began making a concerted push to make the Games younger and more relevant, growing the menu of sports in hopes of appealing to a wider audience. They’ve added 10 snowboarding events since 1998, brought in skeleton and rough-and-tumble short-track speedskating. Men’s aerials began in 1992 and women’s aerials followed in ’94. Ski cross debuted in 2010 and ski halfpipe and slopestyle will both debut in Sochi.
While many of that first wave of competitors were surpassed by younger competitors, a precious few have hung on, adapting with the times. Mostly, competitors say, that means paying a lot more attention to their aging body.
“You have to put in a lot more these days,” Clark said. “For me, it’s about training smarter, not harder.”
Life is no longer as simple as waking up and charging up the mountain. White said he gives himself more recovery time and takes more care choosing the specialists who work on his body. On the days he does train, he usually puts in a few runs and quits after a couple of hours.
“That’s probably why you see me do so many things off the hill,” he said, “because I realize that once those two hours are up, I have to fill my time with something else.”
Older athletes say they don’t feel a social divide with their younger counterparts. Their sports revolve around a shared culture that transcends age. Gretchen Bleiler, 32, competed this year against riders who were just learning to stand on a board when Bleiler won silver at the Turin Games in 2006 — including 13-year-old wunderkind Chloe Kim, who’s too young to compete in Sochi, and 17-year-old Arielle Gold. While the younger riders are still enrolled in school, Bleiler is married, studies meditation and designs snowboards and outerwear.
“Sometimes I do think of this huge gap between myself and Arielle, but that’s just society-ego stuff,” said Bleiler, who missed out on qualifying for Sochi. “It doesn’t matter how old we are. We can learn so much from each other.”
Even though many of the names are the same, the older generation of athletes say they’ve changed since they first set foot on the Olympic stage. Miller now owns five Olympic medals but admits when he first competed at the 1998 Games, “certainly I had a lot of growing to do.”
“I feel like I’m a totally different person now. . . . I have so many more of the pieces in place to make me feel stable and solid and capable of putting together the exact performance that I’ll need,” he said. “That’s a really unique change to happen. In ’98, I was basically throwing the dice.”
He has seen young hot-shot skiers come and go, and Miller recognizes the “perishable process of being a ski racer.” His own goals have evolved over time. He still favors the “perfect” run to the “winning” run, but age has helped his perspective evolve.
“Certainly legacy starts to come into your mind a little bit. I do care about the sport. I always have. . . . I think that obligates you to approach it in different ways sometimes,” he said. “I would never devalue the importance of an Olympic medal because I know it’s important in the bigger scheme of things. But it’s not what motivates me.”
Perhaps no single winter sports athlete illustrates the impact of the Olympics more than White. He was already a celebrity in the insular worlds of skateboarding and snowboarding a decade ago. The Olympics made him one of the most recognizable athletes in America.
“I don’t really feel any different or anything,” said White, who won gold in 2006 and 2010 and is slated to compete in two events in Sochi. “But I do find that I approach the competitions and things much differently now and practicing much differently — a lot more precise than I used to.”
With an average age of 26, the U.S. Olympic team is a mix of youth and experience. There are benefits to both, and those who’ve grown up on the Olympic stage, who’ve crossed over into adulthood with NBC cameras not far away, have seen their sports evolve. Niches no longer, the adventure sports are staples and their top competitors bonafide stars.
“I think every person growing up, you kind of think you know everything until the next year comes around, and you’re like, ‘What was I thinking?’ ” White said. “Right now, I feel like I know everything, but I’m sure I’ll be very surprised as the years go on.”