USA TODAY Sports’ Rachel Axon explains the major story lines to follow heading to Pyeongchang, South Korea.
USA TODAY Sports
ASPEN, Colo. — The calendar was a less-than-friendly reminder for Shaun White, a 30th birthday this year for an athlete whose sport favors the young. A haunting Olympics was another.
And a mockumentary, of all things, started the snowboarding icon down a road of change these past three years.
Part re-evaluation, part evolution, White’s journey since the Sochi Games brings him to a new place as he looks toward a potential fourth Olympics. Since that disappointing fourth-place finish in 2014, the world’s most famous rider has changed his approach off-snow and developed a consistency across his endeavors that has him ready to embrace ones ahead.
It’s continued his career progression, allowing him to find more comfort in shaping a sport as he looks forward to a long competitive future.
“I’m gonna refresh,” White told USA TODAY Sports as he prepared for the X Games last month. “(Expletive) 30, that’s the only thing I can say. That’s why I say I’m just getting started. I never really focused on myself like this and done that type of work.”
That work fuels him as he looks ahead to the Pyeongchang Olympics next year and even the Beijing Games in 2022.
It comes, in part, in response to an Olympic experience where White, the two-time defending gold medalist in the halfpipe, saw plenty go awry.
He attempted to add slopestyle and trained the event before withdrawing while he was in Russia. In addition to the split training time, little things weighed on the experience.
Used to riding no more than two days in a row before a rest day, White went into the halfpipe competition on his fourth consecutive day of riding. With poor conditions in the halfpipe, the riders trained more to adjust and to give feedback so it could be improved.
His usual pre-competition steak dinner couldn’t be arranged, and White lodged with his family for the first time at an Olympics.
None of those is an excuse, but the build-up wore on White.
“It had been a while since I lost a major event like that, and I felt crummy because I had the ability to win,” White said.
“It was just all those little things running into it,” he added. “At the time, to be completely honest, I was getting a little burnt on snowboarding. It was just tough.”
Without the usual onslaught of post-Olympic sponsorship deals, White focused on his music with his band, Bad Things, and focused on what he wanted to do next.
Seeking a better fit and doing some re-evaluating, White switched coaches. He’d watched the NBC documentary, Russia Calling, which captured his training for Sochi with coach Bud Keene and didn’t recognize the intensity in that training situation.
“We didn’t have a rapport,” White said of his relationship with Keene. “We didn’t find our groove or whatever.”
White now trains with JJ Thomas, the 2002 Olympic bronze medalist. It’s more encouraging and collaborative, White said, with Thomas often riding with White.
“It’s nice to have someone like that in your corner,” White said.
He watched Seven Days in Hell, a mockumentary of the tennis rivalry between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg before watching a documentary on Borg. He was struck not only by Borg’s training but more so by his team support.
Coming from a sport that has long scoffed at working out, White started working with Esther Lee, a physical trainer who previously worked with Serena Williams.
In October, he finally had ankle surgery to regain motion that had been limited by a piece of bone chipped off landing in a foam pit before Vancouver.
The training has led White to be selective when he competes, knowing he needs time off his board to remain strong on it. It’s increased his stamina, allowing him to ride four days in a row (and multiple times each day) as opposed to two.
“The kid’s a beast,” said Thomas. “I can barely keep up with him, and I like to consider myself pretty healthy. And he runs me ragged.”
Known for juggling his many endeavors, White said he’s found more consistency in them since the last Olympics.
He bought Air + Style — an event that combines a big air snowboard competition with a music, fashion and arts festival — in 2014 and invested in Mammoth Resorts last year. He launched a men’s line, WHT SPACE, at Macy’s and has taken control of his Instagram content in a way that allows him to share his story.
“It’s all consistent where it felt a little disjointed before,” White said.
It’s prepared him for what come after Korea – a bigger role in the sport than just as a competitor.
Snowboarding has evolved during his long career, but at 19 White wasn’t ready for the type of meetings and organization needed to fill the role others saw for him.
Now he is.
White is looking to make Air + Style an Olympic qualifier, likely for 2022, as big air has been added to the Olympic program for snowboarders for 2018.
Thomas points to the organized tour that surfing has, something that would be preferable to the “ping ponging all over the globe chasing events” that most riders do.
“It’s doable. It’s out there, but it’s going to take some work,” Thomas said. “It’s there for the taking, and the guys want it. I’d say there’s a good chance Shaun will have something to do with it.”
For now, White’s focus is on competition. Thomas has said he felt best at White’s age, and contest results have come for White.
He won the Burton U.S. Open last year. White finished 11th at the X Games after falling on both runs but rebounded to win the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth earlier this month.
The tricks remain largely the same, although White sees himself changed in a way that he hopes will allow him another chance at an Olympic podium.
“I don’t know if I would have changed anything,” White said. “I’ve learned so much and I’ve become so much more inspired to be a snowboarder, to be an athlete.
“It wasn’t my time, so to have another bite at that would be great. Personally, I’m looking at the ’22 Olympics in China still. … It’s those kinds of things that you look forward to and you have goals, and it really fuels everything.”
PHOTOS: ONE YEAR UNTIL PYEONGCHANG GAMES