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TOKYO – Shaun White is nearly ready for a change of seasons.
As one of the most identifiable U.S. winter Olympic athletes, White arrived in Tokyo last week to accept the award of Best Male Athlete of PyeongChang 2018 bestowed by the Association of National Olympic Committees.
When the three-time halfpipe snowboarding gold medalist was greeted by volunteers at the airport, he said, “They were wearing the Olympic rings and I felt like I was here already to compete.”
Wait, isn’t Tokyo a summer Olympic city? Yes, and White has the wheels to compete in skateboarding, one of five sports added to the program for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“Especially being here in Japan, it’s the buzz, the feeling,” he said. “I would love to be a winter/summer Olympian. To be a medalist would just be the next level. I’m slowly making my way toward that goal, but I haven’t officially decided yet. It’s in my sights for sure.”
But later he added, “I’m definitely going to probably be there. I haven’t officially announced it, but I feel very, very passionate about going.”
It’s no pipe dream.
Skateboarding has always been a parallel track for the 32-year-old White. He was mentored as a child by the legendary Tony Hawk.
“I’ve been a professional skateboarder since I was 16 years old and I’ve always loved skateboarding,” White said. “I lost a bit of the desire to compete in skateboarding because winter/summer/winter/summer, it just became too much physically and mentally on me, but now that the Olympics has taken on skateboarding, it’s kind of brought this life into me and my want to compete in skateboarding again.”
White has five X Games medals in skateboarding, most recently in 2011, in vert, which is not an Olympic event. Compare that to snowboarding, in which White has 18 Winter X Games medals, 13 of them gold.
“It’s definitely a challenge and I feel like I’m maybe one of the only guys that does both summer and winter sports,” White said. “I think being presented with something new is exactly what I need in my life.
“Snowboarding is so amazing and it’s such a long and cold and hard winter. Now I’m ready for the summer and the excitement. And so I’ve been entering a couple of skateboarding competitions, and I did really terribly.”
White laughed recalling his first competition in Marseille, France, in September when he didn’t make the 15-man semifinal.
“It was bad,” he said. “I had really a poor performance and I’m very happy that that happened because now I know where to be, where the level of the young skateboarders is at and I’m hoping to take that loss as a motivator to now get to that place and hopefully start winning.”
White didn’t blame his skating so much as the new environment. He competed in bowl, which is similar to park, the Olympic event in which he would compete.
“The formats are different, the athletes are different, the judging’s different,” White said. “I was falling during my runs and the thing I didn’t realize is that it’s called the ‘jam’ format. So it’s not like you go, then I go, then you go. No, everyone goes at the same time and I’m worried about crashing into people. It’s just kind of learning the lay of the land, so going to those things and doing terribly is exactly what I needed to do.”
White said the competition schedule for next year has just been announced, which could hasten his decision to commit.
“I need to see a finish line in order to run toward it,” he said. “I finally know when the dates are for the competitions in May. I’ve got a bit of time to practice. I’m super excited for it. But I’ve kind of pulled the trigger already. I’m in the thick of it skating and learning new tricks and getting to see what’s going on.”
Three men will qualify for Team USA in each event, park and street, in competitions in 2019 and 2020.
White said he felt “so much respect” from the younger athletes he faced in skateboarding.
“I think they all watched (his Olympic performance in PyeongChang),” he said. “People have been throwing around the term ‘legend’ a lot.”
White laughed again. “I’m letting it soak in. I’m proud. I don’t admit it often, but I’m proud of what I did over there. It’s resonating with skaters, with surfers, with people on an airplane, everywhere. It’s been pretty incredible.”
Shaun White poses with his Best Male Athlete of PyeongChang 2018 award at the ANOC Awards Ceremony on Nov. 28, 2018 in Tokyo.
He couldn’t have won in more dramatic fashion. After winning gold in 2006 and 2010, the Vancouver victory so dominant that his second run was a victory lap, White went into Sochi hoping to double in halfpipe and slopestyle.
After deciding not to pursue slopestyle because of concerns about the course, White was devastated by his fourth-place finish in his main event.
“I found the love for my sport again,” he said. “After the Sochi Olympics, it was a really tough loss and I needed to find my way again. And I feel like I finally found it, and as I was doing what I do best, going out there snowboarding, winning, learning tricks, and I had this horrible accident.”
White crashed on a training run in New Zealand and had to be helicoptered to a hospital.
“I split my mouth open, I bit through my tongue, had (62) stitches and surgery, and it was really hard to have all the wind taken out of my sails,” he said. “I had to try to come back from that injury just before the Olympics and find that motivation to feel confident.”
In PyeongChang, White led after the first round, but was overtaken in the second by Ayumo Hirano of Japan, the Sochi silver medalist.
For his final run, White did back-to-back 1440s, landing the combination for the first time, to score 97.75 points.
“Honestly, it was one of the greatest moments of my career and my life,” he said. “My friends were there, everybody in the world was watching on television and it was my moment to shine. And I did and I’m still receiving awards for it, so it must have been special.”
White became the first U.S. male athlete to medal three times in the same event at the Winter Games. He also won the 100th gold medal by Team USA in its Winter Olympic history.
White, who habitually takes the next season off after the Games to refresh, knows that switching to the summer Games will turn up the heat. And then he plans to return to Olympic snowboarding for the Beijing 2022 Games. He will be in China on Dec. 15 to check out the Secret Garden resort, the venue for the Olympic halfpipe.
“The challenge is that while you’re off doing one sport, everybody in the other sport is getting better,” he said, “so for me right now, I’m in a very tough position. I feel like leaving this last Olympics, I’m the best in the world at snowboarding and I could continue to be there.
“It’s less effort to continue to try and hold that title rather than switching sports and try to skateboard, because during that time, other snowboarders are going to be getting better and better and better. And so to come back to snowboarding and expect to be the best will be a difficult challenge, but I feel like it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a winter and summer Olympian and I think I have to give that a try. I have to make that happen. It’s going to be difficult, but I’ll figure it out.”
Only two U.S. Olympians have won medals in both summer and winter Games: Eddie Eagan (boxing gold in 1920; bobsled gold in 1932) and Lauryn Williams (track and field gold in 2012, silver in 2004; bobsled silver in 2014).
White said winning trophies like the ANOC award makes him want to go to more Olympic Games.
“It’s nights like these that make you stop and bask in the success of it all and what you’ve done,” White said, “but as an athlete and competitor, you’re always so hungry for that next win and that next thing. It’s amazing. I’ve been doing this for so long. I was a pro at 13.
“You can’t help but kind of look back and go, ‘Wow, this has been such an amazing career.’ And I’m so proud of the way I’ve been able to hang in there this long. It’s been awesome and I still feel like I’ve got more to give and more in me.”