Shaun White: Older, dapper snowboard star seeks another gold
Stiff competition as veteran boarder tries for third consecutive win
Pop culture icon. Lone wolf. Snowboarding superstar. Businessman. Musician.
Whatever the title, first and foremost Shaun White is the face of snowboarding, whether his competitors like it or not.
And all eyes will be on the two-time Olympic gold medallist on Tuesday as he hopes to make history for the sport by earning a spot on the podium for his third consecutive Winter Games.
If White succeeds in Sochi, he’ll be the first to do so since halfpipe snowboarding debuted as an Olympic sport in 1998.
However, the 27-year-old, once a teen prodigy himself, faces stiff competition from a Japanese boarder half his age, 15-year-old Ayumu Hirano.
In his usual self-assured style, White told reporters he's not only seeking defend his spot at the top but to wow fans.
After his first training session at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on Saturday, he suggested that he might try a triple flip, a move he’s been struggling to land.
"I've got a lot of things on my mind. A triple could be one of them," said White. "We'll see what happens. Nothing's guaranteed."
The world first met the Flying Tomato – so called for his mane of wavy, red hair – at the Torino Games in 2006. An American flag bandana wrapped around his jaw, the 19-year-old elicited the loudest cheers. His wide grin, bright hair and energy captured audiences.
Gone now are those trademark red tresses. The veteran snowboarder and skateboarder cut his hair last year, a move that might have rendered the U.S. star less recognizable if not for his indefatigable self-promotion.
Cashing in on success
To handle his numerous sponsorships and business dealings, White set up an eponymous company, Shaun White Enterprises. His employees deal with everything, including a boys’ clothing line designed for Target, a signature sunglasses line by Oakley and his synthrock band Bad Things.
In 2012, White's estimated worth was $20 million, according to Forbes.
White's combination of talent and branding efforts have helped place him on Bloomberg's list of the most powerful athletes for the past several years.
After the Vancouver Olympics, he earned the second spot on the list, shining when it came to marketability factors like influence, appeal and recognition by the public. Last year, he dropped to 27th, but is still significant considering he's the only extreme athlete to place on the list.
The slim, 5’9” snowboarder may be beloved among fans – to whom he and his company push a constant, slick stream of social media posts – but in the usually convivial world of snowboarding, responses range from reserved respect to outright dislike.
Slopestyle withdrawal draws scorn
Last week, White pulled out of the inaugural slopestyle Olympics event over concerns about the course. He said he wanted to focus on his potentially historic halfpipe competition instead.
The decision rankled fellow snowboarders. Two Canadians immediately took to Twitter, suggesting he was simply afraid to lose.
"It’s easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can’t win,” wrote Sebastien Toutant on Feb. 5.
Asked about White’s controversial move, Canadian halfpipe snowboarder Crispin Lipscomb jokingly responded, “I’m sorry, who?”
The American hasn’t endeared himself to his fellow snowboarders. While his tricks succeed in pushing the sport further, not all of his actions have benefited the sport.
“You never know what he’s going to do because he’s always working on private stuff at halfpipes no one else gets to go to,” said Canadian snowboarder Brad Martin about his rival.
Leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Red Bull built White a halfpipe to secretly train on in Silverton, Colo. White didn’t invite anyone else to train there, contrasting with another snowboarder who shared his specially-built courses.
As Andy Finch, former American snowboard team member and Fox Sports analyst, told the Boston Globe, “What he’s done is incredible. But for most of these guys, snowboarding is about going out and having fun. Shaun’s looking out for No. 1.”
The San Diego, Calif., native was born with a rare heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot that required two cardiac operations as an infant. The heart defect failed to slow White down.
By the age of seven, White was sponsored by snowboard manufacturer Burton.
In his teens, he began competing in the X Games, the annual extreme sports event, and has since racked up gold medals in both the summer and winter versions, the first athlete to do so.
In a New Yorker profile where a dapper White was photographed snowboarding in a black suit, his staff were effusive about their boss.
Chief operating officer of Shaun White Enterprises Keith Yokomoto described the athlete as not only talented, but charismatic, driven and intelligent.
But the COO added that White’s dogged competiveness also pays off. “Winning makes everything easier” from a business point of view, said Yokomoto.
And winning is exactly what White expects to do on Tuesday. Even the public pressure to win a third gold doesn’t appear to phase him.
“It’s not more pressure than I put on myself,” White said.
(With files from the Olympic News Service)