Shaun White celebrates more than gold after mulling retirement
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Shaun White started the day wearing a white cone cap with light blue stars.
When White texted friend Toby Miller early Wednesday morning, the 18-year-old birthday boy knew he had to wake up. White was the third member of Team Shaun White to message Miller.
“Every morning Shaun, [PR manager] Shelby [Meade], [coach] J.J, Thomas, they all send me a text like, hey, come to breakfast,” said Miller, a promising snowboarder who also films White. “I didn’t sleep very well last night because, you know, I was thinking so much about how Shaun’s going to do here. I was super tired. I was like, I’m good. I’m chilling. I’m not that hungry. Finally they said, oh come up, it’s good for Shaun. They convinced me.”
Miller thought his birthday would be an afterthought. He didn’t expect them all to be wearing cone hats. Or the yellow cake with black frosting (his favorite).
After all, this was White’s day.
He seized it, grabbing the U.S.’ 100th all-time Winter Olympic gold medal (his third) by attempting and landing back-to-back double cork 1440s at a contest for the first time in his life. He used it on his third and final run to overtake Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, who had done the same combination in his second run.
The score: 97.75 points. The greatest halfpipe run in history in the greatest halfpipe contest in history, they said at the bottom of the course on an overcast afternoon.
This was the day White’s entire team – Miller, Meade and Thomas but not forgetting physical therapist Esther Lee and even White’s girlfriend, Sarah Barthel of the band Phantogram – had helped him work to all season.
“This is your Olympics, and this is nobody else’s Olympics,” Barthel, who flew in from Los Angeles on Tuesday, told White before he left for the final. “You need to take it because nobody deserves it more than you.”
Every member of the group, except Barthel, is new since Sochi 2014.
White cleaned house after crashing on a slushy halfpipe and finishing fourth in Russia, when he was bidding for a third straight gold medal.
“It was like losing a family member,” Barthel said.
White said he was defeated before those Olympics, lacking passion for the sport like Michael Phelps said of his losses at the London Games.
The changes came steadily the next two years.
His rock band broke up. He dropped slopestyle (after finishing in dead last at the U.S. Open). He hired Lee, who used to work with Venus and Serena Williams. He started working out. He hired a new quasi-coach, Thomas, who knocked White off the 2002 Olympic team when White was a 15-year-old not-yet Flying Tomato.
White’s age-31 season has been long. He crashed in training in New Zealand in September and urinated blood. He faceplanted again on a 1440 in October and needed 62 stitches across his forehead, lips and tongue (tongue stitches haven’t dissolved).
White said he questioned retiring.
“Friends and family said you’ve done it already, you’re very well off, you can sail into the sunset and write your novel,” White said.
White, a competitor to the core who cites Andre Agassi’s book and Usain Bolt’s documentary, wouldn’t quit.
He came back to win his last contest before the Olympics with a 100-point score. Then the 5-foot-3 Hirano, who took silver in Sochi at age 15, became the first man to land back-to-back double cork 1440s at the X Games two weeks later.
Suddenly, White wasn’t the Olympic favorite anymore. At his PyeongChang arrival press conference last week, White said he was working on the back-to-back 1440s.
But White had never attempted the combination before Wednesday’s final. Not even in practice.
“Quite frankly, it’s dangerous,” Thomas said. “So we just had to wait until it’s game time.”
In 2006, 2010 and 2014, Bud Keene rode the chair lift with White or gave him that final pep talk and fist pound before dropping into the pipe.
On Wednesday, for the first time at an Olympics, it was Thomas.
White looked at Thomas on the ride before the third and final run, with Hirano leading. Everyone knew White had no choice but to throw the back-to-back 1440s.
“[White’s] like, I wish we would have ripped these YOLOs [cab double cork 1440s] a little more now, huh,” Thomas said. “I’m like, ugh, I know. But the good news is they [judges] know you’ve never done it before. So if you lay it down, you get surprise points.”
Thomas told White that he loved him and thanked him for allowing him to be part of White’s journey the last two years.
At the top of the pipe, the 18-year-old Miller took his turn.
“I said something along the lines of Shaun, you’ve put in the work. You’re the GOAT, man. Go show them what you’re made of,” Miller said. “He said, yeah man, love you brother.”
White felt it was his moment as he stared down at a full crowd (large Japanese fan contingent) and a sea of orange banners and signage. He dropped in and started humming the song playing over the loudspeakers, something by rapper Post Malone (whom White met at Coachella).
Frontside double cork 1440. Cab double cork 1440. Front stalefish 540. Double McTwist 1260. Frontside double cork 1260.
He removed his goggles and roared. White came to a stop and waited 100 seconds for the score.
White dropped to his knees and cried at a contest for what he said was the second time in his life. The other was his first Olympics in 2006.
"I've got to go home and watch the footage to make sure it really happened,” White said. “It's the best run I've ever done in my career, and I did it when I had to do it at the clutch moment in front of all my friends and family -- and the world was watching."
White became the first snowboarder to win three Olympic gold medals. He’s considering going for skateboarding, a new Olympic sport, at Tokyo 2020 and hasn’t ruled out Beijing 2022. Greatest of all time already?
"Yeah, you can say that,” White said. “I wouldn't disagree."
After more than an hour of interviews, White arrived back at the condo. All he wanted to do was eat a sandwich, Barthel said. The cake was still sitting on the table.
“I have a feeling he’s probably going to have about half to celebrate,” Miller said. “Word on the street is that they’re turning that into the Shaun White Olympic gold medal suite.”