ZHANGJIAKOU, China — One last time, Shaun White will stand atop the Olympic halfpipe, slap his hands together, give a high-five to his coach and take his snowboard, and snowboarding, on the sort of ride that only he can dream up.
The Beijing Games will be the fifth Olympics for the three-time gold medalist. And they’ll be the last Olympics for the 35-year-old American who is now an elder-statesman for his sport — more than double the age of some of the riders he goes against.
Back when he was a brash teen, he burst onto the scene as “The Flying Tomato” — with the shock of bright red hair, the mile-wide smile and the ability to jump straight out of the halfpipe and hover above it for what felt like days. He came up with tricks nobody else could dream of. He won everything, didn’t apologize for any of it, and went about proving that his sport full of rebels and renegades could play to the mainstream, too.
Some loved him. Even more in a sport that has never fully wrapped its arms around cutthroat competition did not. What nobody could deny was that the sport had a whole different feel when White was on the mountain. In that respect, he understands his role in this game. As he looks back on what he’s accomplished, it makes whatever happens on Feb. 10 for two qualifying runs, then, we assume, on Feb. 11 for three runs in the finals, a little easier to live with no matter the result.
“I’m proud that at my age, I’m still doing this sport,” White said. “I’m honored and the most proud of being able to stay on top of a sport that’s ever-changing. And for this long, to show up and do some heavy tricks with the younger riders, that’s very inspiring to me.”
Based on what the public has seen of White this season — virtually none of his “A” material, and nary a moment at full health — there is no visual evidence to lean on to say he should be a favorite to win his fourth Olympic title.
His top competition — Ayumu Hirano, who has two Olympic silver medals, including the one from 2018 in arguably the most daring halfpipe contest ever — has landed the once unthinkable triple cork two times in competition this winter. One of Hirano’s Japanese teammates, Ruka Hirano, has tried it, as well, and one or two more riders might have it in their bag of tricks, too.
Does White? Well, he was one of the first men to ever work on that trick. But he gave up on it, at least for a time, figuring the risk was too great, and the reward too uncertain. Nobody has yet linked a triple cork as part of a complete run in a contest. (Hirano fell both times on the next jump after landing it.)
White didn’t come close to trying anything so difficult in his run-up to the Olympics, which included poor finishes, an injured ankle, a broken binding at one contest, a bout with COVID-19 and a late, emergency trip to Switzerland for a contest he needed to sew up his spot on the U.S. team.
But he has been working away on a halfpipe in Colorado over the last half of January.
This is what he said in an interview in October: “A lot of that crunch time is going to come down to the last couple of weeks or the month before the Olympics. Everybody’s going to be doing what they’re doing. You have to train, you have to practice, and there’s going to be that last-minute dash to the finish line.”
His coach, J.J. Thomas, is the first to concede that the Japanese, along with Australia’s Scotty James, would all be favored ahead of White heading into the Olympics, “but Shaun, he’s the kind of guy who could click tomorrow and disrupt that entire thing.”
“And I think he’s just doing a great job of taking it for what it is and really just enjoying this curtain call,” Thomas said. “I’ve been really proud of him, just his whole attitude and his performances, too. I mean, there’s a lot of heavy stuff going on out on that halfpipe.”
As much as he loves to be in the middle of it all, White sounds at peace with walking away from it, too.
Even though the snowboarding world is secretive, he knew Hirano and others were working on triple corks. He saw where the future of this sport is heading, and even though he’s gotten stronger thanks to a new routine in the weight room, he felt the reality of what it’s like when you’re 35, not 15.
Though the decision to call it a career didn’t cement itself in his mind until this fall, he had spent a lot of the last four years trying to build a life for after snowboarding.
He’s in a serious relationship with Nina Dobrev, the actress of “The Vampire Diaries” fame.
“I’ve become so much more responsible being in a relationship where I’m very much held accountable for a lot of things,” White said. “It’s very inspiring.”
He is working again with his brother, Jesse, and they recently introduced a new “lifestyle brand,” Whitespace, that is more White’s style than the style of the sponsors who used to beat down his door with deals.
Where he used to find fuel in proving people wrong — “people thought we were kind of throwing our lives away for a sport that wasn’t a ‘real’ sport, so I always felt like I had something to prove,” he said — he now finds joy in simply being able to compete at such a high level at his age.
“There’s just a lot motivating me now that wasn’t there before,” White said. “Or at least it’s a lot different.”
Two-time Olympic silver medalist Danny Kass was on the podium in 2006 when White won his first gold. These days, Kass is 39 and in the coaching business. Now, like then, he’s amazed at where White has taken snowboarding.
“It’s about what he gets out of competition and the drive he pulls from competing,” Kass said. “He’ll give these last three runs everything he’s got and will probably land, hopefully, one of the best runs he’s ever landed in his life.”
Based on what we’ve seen this season, if White wins a gold medal — a medal of any color, really — he will have proven everyone wrong once again.
Based on what what we’ve seen over the span of 20 years — White almost always performs best when the stakes are the highest — it feels a bit too soon to bet against him.