Shaun White has bowed out. Out of the snowboard men’s halfpipe final at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. And out of his extraordinary career. The three-time Olympic gold medallist and all-time great finished one spot off the podium in his last event.
But that was almost secondary when Olympics.com spoke to White after the final in Zhangjiakou.
We asked him about his childhood, when his parents hired a van and camped out in the mountains because they couldn’t afford to stay in the Californian resorts.
White’s voice cracked.
“I love my family. They’ve been so supportive. My mum especially.”
“She’s like, ‘I was good after one gold’ (in Turin 2006). But to keep going, to keep pushing on, even after coming short at Sochi, and to bring it back for the gold in Korea…”
A wistful White was transported back to a more simplistic age of snowboarding, when he hit elite competition some 20 years ago.
“To look at this halfpipe… I remember – it was dug with shovels when I started.
“A lot of the people interviewing me are people my age, that I competed with.
“It’s an honour to be doing it still and it’s an honour to have this last chance to say goodbye, to say thank you for everything.
“Truly blessed,” he concluded, the tiredness and emotion evident in his voice.
Shaun White “pretty excited” for his new life after competition
That honour was made possible not just by White’s unique talents, but by those around him.
White recently told People he now understood what other veterans meant when they complained about apparently spontaneous injuries. When a snowboarder’s abilities decline, he said, it’s a question of safety as much as pride.
The person who has kept him riding with the best until the age of 35 is physiotherapist Esther Lee. She has supported White for seven years, having previously worked with Serena and Venus Williams.
“We did a long treatment yesterday after he rode,” Lee told People after White’s qualifying run at Beijing 2022.
“My approach is to go through the whole body and make sure there’s not too much tension building up because when they’re out there competing, there’s such a high demand on your body.
“And my goal is to prevent any injuries from happening.”
Being fit, she said, is only half the battle.
“The other half is recovery and care and maintenance for your body.
“That’s still something people don’t fully understand, and that’s where the role of a physical therapist is key to your overall health.”
Of course, injuries are not something anyone can eliminate from snowboarding.
White needed 62 facial stitches after a crash five months before PyeongChang 2018, where he won his third and final gold.
White’s coach JJ Thomas accompanied White as he began to climb back on the board.
“Six weeks later we were in Austria, training again,” Thomas told Springs magazine.
“I was nervous; I wasn’t sure if it was safe.
“I kept telling Shaun he should be done, but he kept saying, ‘Nope.’
“We ended up having an insanely fun trip to Austria. It let him loosen up a little and got him back on track.”
Thomas’s approach was to lead by example.
“At this point I knew how Shaun worked, and we really got in and did some dirty work.”
This was natural enough: Thomas had been an example to White when he edged him out of Olympic qualification for Salt Lake City 2002, when White was just 15. (Thomas won bronze that year.)
“I competed against Shaun competitively when I was young,” said Thomas.
“When I was older, Shaun was just a league of himself.”
Thomas became White’s coach in 2016, two years after his disappointment at Sochi 2014, when White just missed the podium.
White is drawn by the idea of imitating his own mentor.
Scotty James: How Shaun White set the example for me
“I was sponsored when I was seven years old. I was given my first board.
“I keep thinking maybe I could be that for the next generation… To help guide their career, help them out. My mistakes and lessons learned through everything…”
Silver medallist in Beijing, Scotty James, is hoping White might set his sights on someone a little more mature.
“If you have the time, there’s four years, there’s one more medal I need, so if you want to help me…” James told White as the pair chatted with Olympics.com after the final.
White seemed to leave that door open to that proposal. He also recognised that the baton had passed on.
“I’m proud of you man,” White told James, apologising for being emotional.
“Truly proud. I was doing those switchback doubles to the deck and you just crushed them effortlessly. To see you throw ‘em down is just awesome.”