Holding someone’s Olympic gold medal for the first time can be like holding their baby; it’s shiny and beautiful, but it’s a bit unsettling, and you don’t want to drop it, so you smile and hand it back after a few moments.
Shaun White now has two of these “babies.” His first, from Italy, is now four years old. The second, which he brought with him on his latest trip to Japan, was earned in memorable fashion at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. After two days of interviews and appearances in Japan to end his global “victory tour” we spent the morning with him before his flight back to Los Angeles.
[At the Cerulean Tower Hotel in Shibuya, Shaun is flipping through a copy of Outdoor Japan Magazine then stops at the spread about the Chillhouse surf retreat and a photo of Padang Padang, one of Bali’s most famous waves…]
Shaun White: How was the reef there? Pretty sharp?
Gardner Robinson: I don’t know, I was trying to ride the smaller waves in Kuta and Jimbaran. Have you surfed Bali?
SW: Yeah, I surfed Ulu Watu; it was really fun but, man, I got holes in my heels. Going over the falls and planting my feet in the reef and just dragging…I surfed the Maldives right before that, it was so sick. The reefs there are shallow, but flat.
GR: And you’ve been traveling to Japan for a while now.
SW: Yeah, the first time I was 12. This trip is my 30th time here; pretty awesome.
GR: Is it all work or do you get some time to play?
SW: There’s always a mix of fun with the work. I love Japan. I find myself comparing it to other places, and I’m like, what does Vermont have other than maple syrup and shredding? Every time I come to Japan, I tack on a couple of days to just hang out in Tokyo. Then, on the way back, you fly over Hawaii, so might as well land, right? Even for just a day…yes!
Japan is so much fun, but I’ve had friends who come here and they are like, “I hate that place, I didn’t know where to eat or how to speak the language,” and I’m like, “Man, you gotta come back with me!” If you know a bit, you’re set.
GR: What about the mountains, have you done much riding over here?
SW: I’d be embarrassed to pronounce the names of most of the places, but we did this thing with Red Bull called “Big in Japan” and that was the first time I really toured a lot of the mountains. We went to—what’s it called—Alts Bandai and Niseko and did some hiking in Tokachidake. That was unreal; I’d never gotten that much powder. I literally went under; it was over my head.
It was a blast, one of those trips I’ll never forget. We were here for a while, and I didn’t have anything to do. Normally it’s hard; I can’t go do this because I have an event, or can’t go ride powder ’cuz I gotta save my legs, or there’s practice...you know what I mean, your whole day is planned out. Instead we were just free riding, living it up. We had BB guns, we were running around causing havoc, oh man, my chest was littered with welts.
GR: You’ve come over for Nissan X-Trail and Toyota Big Air as well.
SW: Yeah, I used to do Toyota; it was one of the first major contests I won. (Pulls out gold medal.) Check her out; I got two of these now, pretty awesome! Airport security was all, “What the… whoa!”
GR: I heard one of your medals found it’s way to the laundromat…
SW: Yeah, the ribbon got super dirty from people handling it, so my mom got it dry-cleaned, without my knowledge. I’m like, “Where’s my medal?” and she’s like “Oh, I took it to the dry cleaner. It’s cool.” (They) literally handed it back on the hanger with the plastic around it. I’m like, “Jeez, Mom.”
GR: What do you think about the fans in Japan?
SW: They are just the best fans, so excited…gosh, how do you explain it…it’s like we are walking down the street, and I’m getting piled on by people, but they are really respectful of your space when you say no. In the U.S., I get attacked by eBay guys all the time. “Sign my shirt, sign my photo” and it’s on the Internet…like that.
Everybody here is cool. I remember the funniest thing, I was at X-Trail and where the riders walk out to the venue were probably 30 people who had made hats with my face on them, you know what I mean? Like my face was huge on their heads. It was one of the weirdest moments of my life, looking at my head on all these Japanese people. But it was pretty cool. They’re so rad, you show up and they have gifts for you, all sorts of fun things.
GR: The super pipe Red Bull built for you in Colorado got a lot of attention. Was it retired right after the Olympics?
SW: Oh, it’s been gone for a while. It was only up for a couple of months. It was crazy, the rumors were flying. People were like, “I heard you bought a mountain,” or “So you fly the Red Bull helicopter from Cali and you just park it at the hill?” I’m like, “No, I take my private jet to the helicopter and then fly to the mountain,” I’m just kidding, but it was unreal.
We came up with the idea in the summer of 2008, just to film actually. We wanted to do something special because we knew everybody was going to want footage, for NBC and the Olympics. So we’re like, let’s get some amazing helicopter footage, and I’ll get to ride and learn some stuff, without the crowds.
Because it’s unbelievable if you actually go to a local resort with me now, it’s pretty heavy. Kids following me down the runs, with phones out trying to get shots.
GR: I was wondering if you ever just show up at the hill and drop in.
SW: And I do, I dig it, I’ll shred through the park and hang, but if I’m going to hike, work on tricks and get it going, it’s tough. For example, I was at the skate park, the local YMCA near my home, and a bunch of people started to crowd the vert ramp. One of the kids lost his board down the ramp while I was skating, put nine stitches in my ankle. Boom, you’re out. I couldn’t do the first three skate events, you know what I mean. It was all over.
So, I’m like, if you are going to all the trouble to make this half pipe and do all this stuff, let’s do it, let’s send it and get a foam pit, let’s get wild, motor cross-style. Those guys do this stuff all the time.
When the pipe was bad we just shredded pow, it was awesome. There’s not much out there. It’s a western town, Doc Holliday style. When we had it set up and people found out about it, all the guys were like, “I want the same thing,” and I remember there were like 10 half pipes popping up. Nike built these guys one in Mammoth, there were half pipes in New Zealand with air bags. (Danny) Kass broke his leg, I think, riding in New Zealand in the air bag.
I actually chipped a bone in my ankle landing in the foam. That’s what ended the session. It’s still dicey, it’s like a trampoline in a way, and it sticks. I dropped in and did the Double McTwist, only 1080, and came around fakie. When I landed everything was compressing in the foam, and my back foot was almost to my shin. I finally felt a pop and it knocked off a piece of bone, and I couldn’t ride the U.S. Open, couldn’t skate that summer, couldn’t do anything. I was so bummed and that was the end of the session… It was just funny I got hurt in the foam, not on the wall.
GR: Then you headed for Mt. Hood (Oregon)…
SW: Oh man, that’s what was so fun. I hadn’t been to Hood in four or five years. It was my haven when I was younger. I’d basically shred all day, then skate until it got dark. I was mostly doing Windells, but then High Cascade started having the better facility, plus it was up closer to the mountain.
I remember when I was young, I was so small I’d get stuck in all the slop trying to hike back up to the top of the pipe. So I literally wouldn’t unstrap; whoever was closest to me would just get down, and I’d hop on their back and they’d take me up to the top. There’s footage of random people carrying me. I’ve got one photo of my dad with me clung to his back, snowboard still on. My dad used to rake the pipe and dig it out so I could shred.
GR: It sounds as if your family was really supportive.
SW: Oh yeah. They bought this eco-line van with the bed over the cabin. We’d park it in the parking lot at Timberline Lodge, sleep there, wake up, use the bathrooms at the lodge and then ride all day, then drive down and skate. That was my childhood; it was hilarious, really fun though.
GR: I’m from Oregon so I grew up skiing Hood and Mt. Bachelor. What would you consider your home mountain?
SW: I grew up riding Big Bear and Snow Summit, but just a couple of years ago, I started riding for Park City, so that’s been my spot. It’s maybe an hour flight (from L.A.). You show up, a 20-30 minute drive, and you’re at the mountain good to go, and they’ve had a 22-foot half pipe for the past couple of years. It’s sick, ’cuz you ride for a mountain like that, and they are so supportive. They are like, “OK, we’ll cut the half pipe for you.” That stuff is priceless in a way. There’re only so many days I can practice in between events and contests. That’s what was crazy; everybody was like, “Wow, you had your own half pipe and just kicked it there for months practicing?” I basically would show up, have two or three days to get it going, and then I’d leave for the next event or an interview or something.
GR: Do you have any strange pre-race rituals or habits?
SW: I just slowly develop them. It depends on the year. I think they’ll only be good for so long before they wear off. In 2006, the Olympic year, I was 19, and I played Back in Black (ACDC) before the first event, and I won. I’m like, I might as well play it at the next event. I won again; might as well keep playing it. I kept winning. So I was like, I have to have this song…I had an undefeated season, I was doing slopestyle, rail jams, all sorts of stuff, even half pipe…it was unreal. I was destroying it.
When I was 16, I went to Ozzfest for my birthday party, rocking out to Ozzie. I bought a shirt, wore it under my jacket, and I won the event. I was like, uh oh, so I wore Ozzie under my jacket every single event. So I’ll have lucky shirts, or certain things I’ll say or do.
And whenever I talked about the Olympics, I would never say I would win. I’d always say, “If things go well, I wanna do this…” ’cuz there is so much preparation for everything before or after. I said it last time around and it slowly caught on. No one would say, “When you win” ’cuz they didn’t want to jinx it.
GR: If you ride well, do you always feel like you are going to win?
SW: I’ve always felt, if I go out there and do the best job I can and someone beats me, they totally deserve it and I’m cool with it. It’s the time when you fall or you didn’t do the best run; that’s when it’s a bummer and you start thinking, “Shoulda, coulda, woulda.” My goal is to make such an amazing run, it can’t be touched. It’s usually how I set out, and I set my goals pretty high at the beginning of the year.
GR: It seems as if there is some good camaraderie on tour. It doesn’t feel like women’s ice skating, you know…
SW: …People trying to take each other out. No, no, but it definitely gets competitive. Everyone wanted to win the Olympics, everyone wanted to go. There are only 3-4 spots for the American team. And I think a lot of people had seen a certain success from Ross Powers and myself and others who had been on the podium—you know what I mean—so it was full on.
Everybody was cool, though. Deep down you want to win as badly as the next guy, but you don’t wear it on your sleeve; you keep it inside, and I kinda like that about our sport. It’s not confrontational like football or something like that.
GR: In Vancouver, just before your final run, you and your coach had a conversation…
SW: …Oh yeah, I heard people talking about that. But he was so excited, man, I can’t even imagine.
GR: Is that when you decided you were going to go for the Double McTwist 1260?
SW: I had planned on doing that run, no matter what. I was like, if somebody bumps my score, I’m going to have to rip this in order to seal the deal. And I remember being at the top and seeing the last guy fall, and I’m like, “Oh my god,” you know what I mean, it just played out how I had imagined it in my mind. Exactly what had happened last time, I won on the first run; it was a victory lap.
Hands are shaking, we’re freaking out, I had just won. I can’t even comprehend what this means at this point, and I still have one run to go. And I’m like, OK, what do I do, just book it down the middle? I wanted to do something memorable. I’d always imagined if I could have done it all over again (in Torino), I’d have the flag in hand doing a huge air above the crowd…victorious. But I didn’t have a flag. So I was like, you know what, I’m going to rip this run. I’m going to do the run I planned on doing and send it. Nobody would be expecting that.
My coach knows me pretty well, though. He knows I use the pressure and the fact I have to land, to land. It’s a big difference when the gun is not to your head. In qualifying, I was already in the finals and, on my second run, what do I do? I fall on the second hit, you know what I mean. He was up there, that’s when he got caught swearing or whatever, saying, “If you are going to do it you better stomp it!” You know, “You better do it and fully commit.” So I was like, I’m really going to focus in and get it done, and so I really threw the run down. I just remember riding away from that last trick and all the nerves and stuff in your chest just explodes.
GR: It didn’t look as if you had enough speed going in to the last trick to pull it off.
SW: Oh, I didn’t. That’s why I kind of torqued at the end ’cuz I was willing it to land. I was like, I’m gonna land it. I did the front five and I landed flat and edged as hard as I could and took off, but I’m sure if I wouldn’t have landed flat it would have been smooth, perfect.
But it was something memorable—why not—and everywhere I’ve gone people have been like, “I can’t believe you did that when you didn’t have to. It was such a cool thing.”
I felt like, how long have I been talking about this trick, how much have I been practicing it? My elbows are still purple from smashing them into the wall. My back, I caught my face in X Games. This trick is like my best friend and my worst enemy. Right when you stop respecting it, it will own you, and you’ll crash.
GR: With the tricks getting bigger and crazier, does it feel like we’re getting near the limit of what is possible?
SW: I always think there is somewhere to go. I mean, you gotta imagine just a couple of years ago pipes were just 16 feet; now they are 22 feet. That allows us to spin more, do bigger flips, multiple flips in one hit. And the fact I was able to use the foam pit and things like that. There will be a whole new generation of kids growing up using these tools, foam pads, air pads, bigger pipes; stuff like that. I’m sure the sport will just get even wilder.
I’m excited and it’s fun. I don’t think I’ve ever been at a pipe event where people were more excited. The tricks were new, and it’s the Olympics. It was so cool, a breath of life into the half pipe scene.
GR: Must be quite a difference between the crowds at the X Games and the Olympics.
SW: You should see me walk around the street here now; it’s crazy. Not just young Japanese, but old Japanese people spot me. I mean, everywhere, through Europe it’s been wild. Everyone wants to compare X Games and the Olympics, but you just can’t. You get down to the bottom (at X Games), and you talk to Sal Masekela from ESPN, but here you get down and it’s like, “We’re live in Brazil!” You know what I mean?
After I landed my run, stuff just started flowing in. It was like Christmas with your dad saying, “Wait, there’s one more gift.”
President Obama made a speech about me. “To the youth of America, Shaun White and his private half pipe, he won gold, way to go, he proved this message.” And then I woke up the next morning, and they are like, you are going to be back on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, and I’m just like, yeah!
There were just so many things coming in. We were on the way to get my medal and do some interviews, and they are like, “Oprah called, and she’s sending a jet to come pick you up tonight to be on her show.” Then we go to New York to shoot the cover, then I’m closing down the stock exchange. I was on Larry King Live, doing all these crazy things. It’s been bizarre. I was at a fashion show in Milan just eight days after I won the medal. It’s crazy, but it’s been fun, and I’m enjoying it.
GR: How were Torino and Vancouver different for you?
SW: The first time around changed everything for me. My success at that point had just been pushed over the edge. It was crazy, but this time around I was expected to win. I was the hopeful; the guy. I felt like I was able to deliver, with the victory run and the whole deal. It was everything I had dreamed and then some.
(In Torino) we had like three days of practice, opening ceremony, I competed and then I left. People were like, “So, what was the Olympic vibe like?” And I’m like, I don’t know, man, there was some weird pasta, you know. We were up in Bardonecchia, about three hours outside of Torino, so there was nothing there. But Cypress (Mountain) is like 20 minutes outside of Vancouver, so we were hanging in the city. I’m at the Olympic Village for three days, and then I duck out to my own place near Cypress to compete. Then the whirlwind started.
GR: You weren’t here to check out the Nagano Olympics were you?
SW: No, I was just a child, but I lost by three-tenths of a point to go to the Salt Lake games when I was 15. In Nagano they were like, “Snowboarding is in the Olympics,” and we’re like cool, but then Terje (Haakonsen) didn’t want to go so, honestly, I haven’t seen it to this day.
Park City went off because it was in the U.S., and it was amazing to watch. Powers did this unreal huge air the first hit, like a 21-foot air on a baby half pipe. I saw the footage; this thing was tiny, and the Americans swept the podium. It’s something you don’t realize unless you are a U.S. Olympian or were at the Olympics, but people were like, “America did it!” We hadn’t swept in so long, and it blew up. Ross and those guys were everywhere. I remember seeing that and going, everyone thinks Ross Powers is the best snowboarder in the world, you know what I mean.
The reason I wanted to go so bad after that was because I didn’t make it. Everybody was like, “Are you upset?” But it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Losing this past season at Mammoth to Danny Davis was the best thing that ever happened to me. I lost, and the next day I flew to Park City and learned the Double McTwist, the next day. It’s amazing what the pressure of a loss or the Olympics will do to me. A lot of people sit back and say, “Bummer, I lost,” but I’m like….how can I make it so I never feel this way again?
GR: Do you use the same board for everything?
SW: Yeah, it’s a 156 from my White Collection. I’ve got a whole line with Burton, from jackets to boards and boots and gloves to helmets and stuff. The only thing different is I take the edges off when I go into slopestyle, but that’s about it.
What’s bizarre is I’m looking at everyone’s stance this season, and mine’s really wide compared to theirs. Danny Davis has this little baby stance, and I’m like, “How do you ride like that?” My stance is like a power stance, you know. I’m not that tall and I have mega stance.
GR: How is the transition from snowboarding to skating?
SW: That’s always the strangest adjustment. I can go from skate to snow and do everything; tens and nines and flips and everything, but going from snow to skate, I can’t do anything. I’ll have to re-learn it every time; it’s awkward. Re-learning the McTwist on skate is the most frustrating thing ever.
GR: Do you think there will be a day when you’ll choose one or the other?
SW: I’d just assumed at some point skateboarding would make the summer Olympics and I’d be like, let’s do that, you know what I mean? I’d take the whole year and try and do this, because it’s something I want to do for myself, something I want to compete in. It would be pretty fun to figure out.
GR: So, you think it will be in the Olympics soon?
SW: If not in London it will be in Brazil, I’m pretty sure. That will be crazy. I love it; I mean it’s such a fun sport, and I don’t get to do it as much. So, when people ask me what sport I’d choose, I choose skating. Which is bizarre, but if you eat this cereal every day, at some point you’ll want that one. It’s simple.
It would be awesome, huh? I tell everybody, all my hair will be gone for sure. Think about it; the Olympics, a year off, the Olympics again, you know what I mean, winter, summer, winter, summer. Man, I’ll lose my mind.
GR: Is there anything you like to do to relax that might surprise people?
SW: It’s wild. I have a hard time relaxing because I’m on the go so much. It’s like when you are young playing in the street, but you have homework to do and it’s in the back of your mind. It’s like that, but I’m sitting there like, what do I have to do today? I’m supposed to do something.
I won a guitar when I was 16 at X Games for Athlete of the Games. A guitar, a fender strat, and a car. I started playing and got hooked, I just love it. I can actually sit and do nothing and still be doing something. I surf, skate, snowboard, play soccer with friends. Playing guitar is the only non-physical thing I do.
Music is such an amazing thing. I take my guitar with me everywhere. I have a Les Paul upstairs. I didn’t bring the amp ’cuz we were in Europe, but usually I take a portable amp with me; pedals, loop pedals, tuners. I knew we were going to be in Copper for almost month for an event, so I bought a Marshall stack and just wheeled it up there. I’m sure the room next to me was like, “Oh my god.” I love playing. It’s fun and it’s the only thing that gives me the same satisfaction as riding or competing.
People probably don’t realize I actually travel with gear though. It’s pretty hilarious. And what’s fun is it’s like speaking a language or like you’re in a club. I’ll just walk into a local place and be like, “Hey, who plays music?” I have people in Colorado I play with, people in L.A. and Carlsbad, different zones; it’s fun.
GR: So, the Rolling Stone cover must have been pretty cool for you then.
SW: That was unreal. Second one. Did you know there have only been three athletes in the world to be on the cover of the Rolling Stone?
GR: Who were the other two?
SW: Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. Bananas, right? And if you can imagine, I’ve got two.
GR: Impressive company, and you are the first “White” guy.
SW: Yeah, the first “White” athlete.
GR: So the next Winter Olympics are in Russia…
SW: …Yeah, I was at breakfast with some friends this morning and they were like, “What do you think about Sochi? Do you think you’ll go?” And I’m like, I’ll be 27, I’ll probably go. It’ll probably be another gauntlet.