PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Shaun White wore three rings as he arrived at his fourth Olympics.
One was for winning a gold medal in snowboarding at the Turin Games in 2006. Another one highlighted his gold medal performance in Vancouver in 2010. The third, well, that one showed that he made the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi in 2014, which felt like his participation trophy.
“I didn’t really wear the Sochi [ring] for a while,” he said. “I was slightly ashamed of what happened.”
He placed fourth in the halfpipe, an event he had dominated in becoming an icon in extreme sports.
The performance rocked him. He admits he was burned out on the sport, his passion flickering. Legends don’t leave Olympics medal-less and brush it aside as nothing.
“The bubble that you live in is shattered,” he said.
White admittedly stretched himself too thin by competing in slopestyle in Sochi. And maybe he became a little complacent, too. Not purposely. Just by human nature. Climbing to the apex is one thing, staying there requires constant self-motivation.
“Having to win after winning after winning,” he said.
The results in Sochi forced him to re-evaluate his life, his priorities, and decide whether he still had the desire to make the necessary commitment to compete against young, hungry riders.
“The same things that got me excited and motivated weren’t really working anymore,” he said. “It’s hard to admit, but I can talk about it now. At the time, my heart wasn’t in it.
“It’s like if you’ve ever been in a relationship and someone loves you,” he continued. “And you’re like, ‘I wish I could flip a switch and love you back.’ ”
White paused, realizing how this all sounded to two reporters. Standing in the middle, he put his arms around our shoulders.
“We’re getting deep, guys,” he said, laughing.
“But honestly, I wish I could just flip the switch and make myself love snowboarding the way I did when I was 7. But it’s just not the case. So you have to find ways to get back into it.”
He took time off from his skateboarding career. He toured with his rock band, bought a dog, purchased stakes in a sports-music festival. He transitioned to a different phase of his life.
The fire eventually returned, and he set his sights on qualifying for Pyeongchang. But then a scary crash during a training run in New Zealand put everything in doubt.
White clipped the top of the halfpipe while performing a trick, then fell face-first to the bottom. He looked like a heavyweight fighter after a bloody 12-round bout.
He was helicoptered to a hospital, where he received 62 stitches in his face. Some of the stitches in his tongue still haven’t dissolved yet, causing a hint of slurred speech.
“It was the most visually jarring injury I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m sitting there looking in the mirror and I can’t recognize myself. It was hard for me and I had to contemplate things. Do I really want this? Is this a sign? Have I gone too far?”
Once his physical injuries healed, he focused on repairing his psyche. He took a trip to Austria, where he planned to perform the same trick — cab double cork 1440 — that he injured himself performing. He wanted to face his fears.
Then a blizzard hit.
“So I just went free riding and enjoyed the sport of snowboarding and riding powder,” he said. “That got me happy and excited.”
He still hadn’t qualified for the Olympics at that point. It came down to his final competition, the U.S. Grand Prix in Colorado in mid-January. White won the event, scoring a perfect 100 with a run that included, yes, a cab double cork 1440.
That showing made White a favorite again to medal in these Games. His bravado reappeared.
“I don’t think we’ve seen my best run,” he said. Competition in the men’s halfpipe begins on Tuesday.
White is 31 now with other business interests, but he remains among the most famous Olympic athletes. His staying power comes with a heavy dose of introspection.
“From Day 1 I was expected to do well,” he said. “I was sponsored at 7. I was on this path and wanted to be the next big thing in this sport. But I was also teed up to be the next big failure. It really was up to me to show that I was going to achieve this path rather than the failure path.”
He says the “simplest answer” still motivates him like it did back then.
“The feeling I get of accomplishing a trick, and using that trick to win, and then stand there with an award in my hand is an undeniably amazing feeling,” he said. “It just feels right.”
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org