Shaun White attends Team USA Processing on Feb. 6, 2018 in Incheon, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – There’s nothing like smashing your face on the lip of a halfpipe to make you take a hard look at your life.
Just ask Shaun White.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist in snowboarding halfpipe crashed on a training run in New Zealand in October while doing a double cork 1440. He was helicoptered to a hospital and required 62 stitches, while also suffering from a pulmonary lung contusion. He shared a photo of his bloodied face on social media.
“It was the most visually jarring injury I’ve ever had,” White said as the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 got underway Thursday. “You could break a bone, but you’re not looking at the bone broken in your arm. I’m sitting there looking in the mirror and I can’t recognize myself. It was a really tough, tough, time.”
White, 31, dropped into full contemplation mode following the injury.
“Do I really want this?” he thought. “Am I pushing something? And then the deeper thing was – Is this a sign? I was trying to find the silver lining in the whole thing. Well is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? What’s happening? I think at the end of the day for me, it was kind of a reality check, just to know myself and go, ‘Do you really want to pursue this?’ If you think about me stepping back out on the snow, it means that I’m willing to have that happen to me again, so it’s a big commitment.”
He decided, of course, to get back on the board, though he has a constant reminder of the crash.
“I still have stitches in my tongue,” White said. “That’s why I’m slurring my speech a bit. They said it’s dissolvable, but it’s yet to be seen. I’m trying to email the doctor in New Zealand. ‘Are you sure? The tip of my tongue is kind of numb.’”
The rest of his body is ready for competition.
In January, White made his fourth straight Olympic team with a convincing win at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix at Snowmass, Colorado, scoring a perfect 100 in what is considered the most competitive contest in history.
“It’s one of the highlights of my career, definitely Top 5,” White said. “Winning the competition, not only that, locking up my spot with a perfect 100 on the very last run of the contest, it was wild. That’s a memorable thing I will never forget, knowing I was secure to come here and compete, having my shot at the big title for the Olympics, I was beside myself.”
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Rivals In The Pipe
He is expected to face tough competition at Phoenix Snow Park from Scotty James of Australia, who won the gold medal at X Games Aspen, Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, the silver medalist from Sochi, and defending Olympic champ Iouri “I-Pod” Podladtchikov of Switzerland, who broke his nose on Jan. 29 at X Games.
White withdrew from X Games because he was physically drained from fighting a cold and chose to take some time for recovery.
“I took a step back, going ‘What’s the goal for this year? It’s not X Games. It’s the Olympics,” he said.
“It was great to watch those guys’ runs and see their best. Now I get the chance to throw my best. See how it stacks up. I don’t think we’ve seen my best run. Actually, I know.”
White said that physically he feels stronger than he ever has before, but the biggest hurdle he’s had to clear has been mental.
“I feel more like I know who I am and I know my riding and my abilities,” he said. “It’s just kind of a mental mindset, having won and then having to win after winning – which is always a great problem to have. It’s finding that motivation, finding that drive, and I’ve been challenged again and again throughout the season and the seasons before this to be prepared for this big event.
“When I was younger that fire, that fight was just undeniable. It was just easy to show up in rain or shine, ‘I’m gonna throw down.’ You get a little older, you’ve got a dog at home, relatives calling you and your life just gets a little more complex. You’ve got to push those things aside and focus on the goals ahead.”
White said five-time Olympian Kelly Clark has been a big inspiration to him. “She’s still going. We kind of give a high-five at the end of the contest. The old guys have still got it.”
Just like his accident last year gave him pause, the same thing happened four years ago in Sochi when White finished fourth in halfpipe and withdrew from slopestyle, which was part of his ambitious Olympic schedule.
“After Sochi, it was an eye opener for what life’s really like,” said White, who came in as the favorite. “That bubble that you live in is kind of shattered and you’re like, “What do I really want to do?”
Well, he decided, it was snowboard.
Born To Ride
“Gosh, ever since I was a kid, this is basically what I wanted to do,” said White, who is also a pro skateboarder and is considering a bid for the event at the Tokyo 2020 Games. “I’ve made every little step I could to get there. There’s plenty of people along the way who said this wasn’t going to happen. It was that fight to make it happen, and once it did, I was 19 (when he won his first Olympic gold medal). I had these huge contracts and deals and my life was pretty much set. Then the motivation became to solidify the fact that this is who I am and what I do (in Vancouver four years later).
“I was sitting there after Sochi and I said, “This is what I do. This is what I feel good doing. There’s so much fun that happens on the mountain. The feeling I get of accomplishing a trick and then using that trick to win an event and I could stand there with an award in my hand, it’s an undeniably amazing feeling.
“At the end of the day, it’s the most simple answer. It’s just feels right.”
White comes into PyeongChang coached by Olympic bronze medalist J.J. Thomas, who took the last spot on Team USA in 2002, denying White a trip to the Games at age 15.
“It’s funny because he was there at the beginning of my career with some tough love and now he’s here to help me out at this point along my journey,” White said.
In some photos since 2014, White can be seen wearing two U.S. Olympic team rings. Now he wears three, two on one hand and one on the other, and recently received a fourth.
“This is Sochi,” he said, pointing to the one from 2014, “which I didn’t really wear for a while.”
He said the rings from 2006 and 2010 say “Gold Medalist,” but the Sochi ring is just the basic edition.
“I didn’t win a medal,” he said. “I was slightly ashamed about Sochi, and now I wear the ring. I’m like, ‘I was an Olympian, I was proud of being there. How many people get to go to the Olympics?’”
Much less four times.