[Shaun White reacts with disbelief when he puts down his final run. Photo: Sam Mellish]
Every morning for the past few days, I’ve seen Shaun White as I come down for breakfast. He’s staying in the same hotel as me, presumably opting out of the athlete’s village so he can be with his family. The funny thing is, it took me a couple of days to realise it was him.
Despite being the most famous face of the winter games, when he’s wearing a tracksuit and a baseball cap, Shaun is strangely anonymous-looking. The hotel is swarming with media types, but if they've recognised him they're not showing it. He mostly keeps his head down and goes about his business like an ordinary dude.
"Before that final run, Shaun had never done back-to-back 1440s. Not even in practice."
It’s a different story when he steps out onto the slopes of course. Once Shaun pulls on that NASA suit and his trademark facemask, he can’t move for fans wanting selfies, or journalists hanging on his every word.
When his image appears on the screen at the top of the halfpipe, the noise levels at the bottom go up several notches. I’ve learned that most riders at the Olympics will get a good cheer from their compatriots, but everyone shouts for Shaun White.
Today, he showed once again exactly why he attracts this level of attention. And it’s not because of his celebrity status. At the age of 31, twelve years after he won his first Olympic gold, Shaun White is still the best competitive snowboarder in the world.
Watching his run - massive back-to-back 1440s, followed by that front five stalefish (aka ‘the skyhook’), and rounded off with back-to-back 12s - was mind-blowing enough. Talking to him about it afterwards made it even more so.
Before that final run, Shaun said, he’d never done back-to-back 1440s.
“I didn’t even do it in practice," he said. “The first or second day I threw two of them but I'd never linked it." But standing at the top he told himself: "I know I can do this, come on!"
"Most riders at the Olympics will get a good cheer from their compatriots, but everyone shouts for Shaun White."
The combo wasn’t something you could practise because “the moves are so dangerous," according to his new coach JJ Thomas. “The consequences now are so high." However Thomas, a former Olympic medallist himself who Shaun claims has made a big difference to his training, had faith. He knew Shaun would thrive under the pressure. “We were up top and they announced his name and I saw him fist-pumping and I felt it. He needs this energy, this is his stage."
Shaun agreed: “I do better when the pressure’s on. I just did the biggest 1440 of my life [in his first run] and then Ayumu comes through and blows it out the water. But standing at the top, one run to go, the world’s watching, my whole family is here, everyone cheering me on, I just put it down."
That moment tasted all the sweeter because this time, Shaun has really had to work for it. Unlike Turin or Vancouver, where he got victory laps, he had to land his final run here. Ayumu pushed him right to the wire. But it’s not just that, it’s because the road since that last victory lap in Canada has been long and rocky.
In 2014, having just watched Shaun finish 4th in Sochi, I wrote that the reason he hadn’t won was because he hadn’t wanted it enough. Shaun said as much himself today. “It was like this crazy deja vu. I was standing there, last guy to go, and I have to put it down. In Sochi, I just didn't have it in me. It's awful to admit it but I was just unmotivated, I was slightly defeated before I got there."
He explained: “I had this perfect storm of biting off more than I could chew during a time when I was the most unmotivated. I was doing slopestyle and halfpipe and I was lead guitarist in a band." Playing music had always been a dream of his, but it definitely detracted from his snowboarding.
If I was right about Shaun’s state of mind going into Sochi however, I couldn’t have been more wrong about what would happen next. While he did consider the idea of retiring, he eventually found that inner competitive drive was too strong. “I just had to find the love for the sport again," he explained.
Yet having set his sights on a comeback, and begun to work hard for it, his hopes were very nearly dashed once again.
"He took a horrific slam, which needed 62 stitches to put his mouth and chin back together."
In October last year, Shaun was training in New Zealand when he took a horrific slam to the head trying a cab 1440. He needed 62 stitches to put his mouth and chin back together. “It completely separated my face," he said. “I couldn’t recognise myself in the mirror."
The physical damage was gnarly enough, but the psychological scars it left were just as deep. “We're on this amazing path learning these great tricks. I'm feeling positive, And then boom - I'm laid up in the hospital. It was that true question of 'do I really want this?' Plenty of my friends and family were like: ‘You’ve got medals. You can easily sail into the sunset.’"
“But I set out to do this goal, and I stuck to it. I feel like life was just like ‘are you sure?’ with this crash and I said: ‘Yeah, I'm sure’ and here we are man, I don’t know what to say."
Shaun has always been the most competitive man in snowboarding. “When I was younger it was really uncool to want to win [or] to be upset when you lost," he said. “Everybody was like: ‘I’m just stoked to ride’ and I’m like: ‘No you’re not, It’s a contest, you want to win!’" But the difference between the Shaun of four years ago and the Shaun of today, the reason why he lost in Sochi and won in Pyeongchang, is because of how much he wanted to win.
When the final score came through today, he burst into tears. “It just means the world to me," he said. “All that hard work, the injuries, the ups and downs, and the decision to come back after all that…"
"The reason why he lost in Sochi and won in Pyeongchang is because of how much he wanted to win."
“Today I did the same trick that put me in the hospital to win the Olympics. So it’s a dream come true."
What Shaun White has achieved over the course of his long career is crazy. Who knows if this is the final chapter, but if it is, then it’s up there with the craziest. He’s swapped the world of celebrity for snowboarding once again, caught up with the young guns, endured horrific injuries and then thrown down when it counted most. It’s a fifth act tale of redemption worthy of Shakespeare.
Whether you think his competitive urge - his all-consuming desire to win - is ‘cool’ or not is beside the point. If you watched today’s halfpipe final, you can’t help but respect it. He’s got his head down, he’s put the work in. And, as he says: “I put it down."
I don’t know whether I’ll see Shaun White at breakfast tomorrow. He’s got a medal ceremony this evening, and probably a few media commitments. If I do though, I hope he looks hungover. He deserves to celebrate.