Don't call it a comeback: Shaun White's been here before

2-time Olympic halfpipe champ poised to rebound from Sochi heartbreak

Don't call it a comeback: Shaun White's been here before
COPPER MOUNTAIN, CO - DECEMBER 09: Shaun White #2 of the United States competes in the FIS World Cup 2018 Men's Snowboard Halfpipe final during the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix on December 9, 2017 in Copper Mountain, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) © Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
By Andrea Lee-Greenberg

At 31, Shaun White is the oldest snowboarder invited to compete in men's halfpipe at the Winter X Games this weekend. He is the oldest of the top 25 male halfpipe snowboarders on the World Cup circuit, and at least eight years older than each of his three teammates on the U.S. men's halfpipe team headed to the Winter Olympics.

Yet if any boarder should be stoked these days, it's White.

"I'm so excited," he said Saturday, showing off his new, shiny, silver Team USA jacket. "It's going to be awesome."

A week earlier, White scored a perfect 100 at a U.S. Grand Prix event in Snowmass, Colo., vaulting him to the top of the podium and clinching his spot on the Olympic team. (The last time a male snowboarder scored 100 was in 2012 — and that was White, too.)

Consider, too, White's quick recovery from a horrific crash last fall.

On Oct. 20, 2017, in pre-season training in New Zealand, he missed the landing on a cab double cork 1440 and smashed his face on the lip of the halfpipe. In video footage shot by Yahoo Sports, he doesn't then so much fall into the bottom of the pipe as collapse into it, as a wobbly spring would if dropped from above. His nose appears nearly flattened, with blood covering the lower part of his face. He had surgery and received 62 stitches. A day later, his lungs began to fill with blood and he was rushed into intensive care.

For weeks following the incident, White's social media posts showed him only with a surgical mask or balaclava covering his face. Then, at the end of November, he was back on snow. On December 9, he finished third at the first Olympic halfpipe qualifier for Americans. Now he's headed to South Korea as one to beat.

'I like the heartache'

It is an incredible feat of resilience for an athlete many believed was finished with competition. After a lacklustre performance at the 2014 Olympics, White took a break. Among other things, he toured with his band, bought Air + Style (a big air/music festival), became part owner of California's Mammoth Mountain, and launched a clothing line with Macy's.

But at a U.S. athlete summit in April, White seemed bewildered that anyone would think he had left snowboarding behind.

"A lot of people were like, 'Oh, I thought you were done,'" he said. "I was like, What? Who said that? I never said that.

"I love it. Deep down, I do. I like to compete, I like the struggle, I like the heartache of it. And it goes past fun. People are like, 'Are you having fun?' Yeah, but it's fulfilling. I'm getting more than just fun and a good time. It's a fulfillment. And I missed it."

Speaking of heartache… those Sochi Games.

As the two-time defending gold medallist, White was easily favoured to win — but he fell twice in his first run of the final and didn't recover in the second. Switzerland's Iouri "I-Pod" Podladtchikov won gold; White was fourth. 

The images that remain from that event — White on the edge of the halfpipe, his snowboard bent almost in half; another, of him holding his head, still in his helmet, with gloved hands — tell the story of his very public defeat.

"I will never get over Sochi," he said. "It's something that's a part of me. It's like falling off your bike as a kid. You have the scar and you remember, 'That's when it happened.'"

In hindsight, he should have seen it coming.

"Every single detail about Sochi was wrong for me," he said. "Everything."

Such as?

  • His coach, Bud Keene: "His style of doing things and my style didn't really mesh."
  • His pre-competition song: "I always find a song that takes me through the season. It's usually upbeat … and the song I was listening to was super slow and kind of a downer."
  • His pre-competition meal: "I usually have a steak before I compete. It's like a ritual." But Keene, who typically did the cooking, didn't have a steak. "He's like, 'I got leftover pork chop or whatever's left in the fridge.'"
  • Not enough rest: "I usually take the day off before the competition. But since the competition didn't know if it was going to happen or not, the practice just kept going on and I was like, 'Well, I don't know when I'm going to ride next so I have to ride.'"

"Not one of those things broke the camel's back, so to speak," he said. "I can only chalk it up to the fact that it just wasn't my time. What else can you say?"

Hungry young rivals

If Pyeongchang is to be his time, he'll have to get through a stable of highly successful competitors, first.

There's Australia's Scott James, 23, for example, who in 2017 won the world championship, the Olympic test event and the Winter X Games. He finished second at the Snowmass event with 96.25 points, despite landing the first switch backside 1260 in competition. (Afterwards, he told the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia that it was "quite hard to beat these Americans at these U.S. qualifying events.")

Podlodtchikov, 29, is still in the mix, as is Japan's Ayumu Hirano, 19, who was the youngest snowboard Olympic medallist ever when he won silver in Sochi. White's 22-year-old teammate Chase Josey, too, is also hungry for a medal.

"I love new blood coming on the scene, and it's always fun to have somebody stir things up," White said. "If you just keep the same guys and the same thing you lose motivation, as well. 

"It's tough, though," he continued, beginning to sound like the veteran he is. "I've lived with this kind of, sort of, expectation to succeed, and it's not something that's easy to maintain. A lot of times you get that look, and that hard look, and it's hard when everyone's watching you. 

"Before you were the underdog, and you can win, and you can do whatever. And if you don't win, it's OK. But when you're expected to be the guy, it's really hard, sometimes."