Shaun White: Sochi was 'the worst thing I could have imagined'
Shaun White, the 2006 and 2010 Olympic champion in snowboard halfpipe, rode into the Sochi Olympics aiming to make history two times over: by becoming the first U.S. man to win gold in the same event at three consecutive Winter Olympics, and by claiming the first-ever gold medal in the snowboard slopestyle event, which made its Olympic debut in Sochi.
Then two days before the Opening Ceremony, White dropped out of the slopestyle competition, citing potential risk of injury due to the dangerous course. He turned his sole focus back to the halfpipe, which looked to be a smart decision after he earned the highest score in the qualifying round. But in the final, his Olympic winning streak ended when he fell twice in his first run, played it safe in his second, and finished off the podium in fourth place.
"People ask, 'When are you going to get over it?' You know, the loss or whatever. You don’t, you don’t really ever get over it," White explained in an interview on February 8th, exactly one year out from the start of competition at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Now 30 years old, White is gearing up for a fourth Olympics—and using what he learned from his disappointment in Sochi to try and reclaim his title as Olympic champion.
What was your favorite moment of the Sochi Olympics?
My whole family was there so it was awesome. We were shopping, eating bizarre food, just hanging out, so that was nice. It’s always fun when we can all be together, and they’re all wearing the USA gear. It’s their one time to come really support, and relatives that don’t normally come to competitions come [to the Olympics], so that’s the best. Definitely not my performance…
How often do you think about that competition?
Quite a bit, it’s something that… People ask, “When are you going to get over it?” You know, the loss or whatever. You don’t, you don’t really ever get over it. It’s kind of like you have a scar from falling off a bike, it’s just with you forever. But you learn from it. So it’s a part of me now, which is great. As hard as it was, I’m thankful that it happened because it taught me a lot.
Can you tell me one thing it taught you?
One great thing I learned is that, the worst thing I could have imagined happened, and I was still there. I was still alive and well and had a great family and a dog. My dog still liked me! And I thought, for some reason, if you don’t win the slate gets wiped clean. But people were still like, "You’re the champ! You won medals already," so I was still getting recognized for the things I did before. You can’t really take that away. So I learned a nice lesson of, you win, you lose, you come back, you just keep going. It really inspired me to continue.
You’re preparing for your fourth Olympics—does this one feel any different?
Way different, yeah. My first Olympics [2006 Torino Games], I didn’t even know what was happening. I was like, "This would be really cool if I won!" I didn’t realize on what scale winning the Olympics was, and so that was all new to me. The second time I went [2010 Vancouver Games], I knew what to expect, I knew what I was going for, and I wanted to cement in the fact that it wasn’t a fluke that I won. This is what I do, this is my life, and I’m here to win. And then I did it again and it was great.
The third time around, I definitely made some decisions that I don’t normally do. They changed the format and put in slopestyle [along with] halfpipe, and I tried to compete in both events which was a bit of an oversight of how much time it was going to take to do both. I started working with a coach that I hadn’t put that much time in with, a lot of different things going in.
And to be honest my mindset just wasn’t really there. It’s hard to say, it sucks. When your mind’s not there, you can be as strong as you want, you can be the best rider, but if your head’s not in the right space it just won’t work.
So learning from that, I came back this time around with a new coach, new trainer, new physical therapist, new sponsors, new haircut. Everything just feels different, so it’s very exciting. And obviously winning the last event [U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain], that was the Olympic judging format they’re going to use and all that, so it feels good.
So you’re planning to focus on just halfpipe for PyeongChang?
No slopestyle, just halfpipe. That’s the plan. Because it’s a lot. I was learning the tricks in the halfpipe and rushing over to slopestyle, and by the time I got back to halfpipe the little nuances of those tricks I was learning just went out the window and I had to relearn them. It was time-consuming, it was tough. The last qualifying event [before Sochi] I got knocked out in the slopestyle competition, physically knocked out, I hit my head, and then had to come back up to do finals. I won the event, and then the next moment I had to rip over to the halfpipe. It was way too much. So I’ve focused my efforts on just halfpipe.
How do you think the conditions of the halfpipe in PyeongChang will compare to Sochi's pipe, which got some criticism for not being Olympic quality?
I think PyeongChang will be great, to be honest. I think that with what happened at Sochi they’re going to be very precise on their methods of building the halfpipe. It was just a strange one to be honest, everything that happened at Sochi had never really happened before. And now coming into this one I have faith that it’s going to be great. What else can you do? Wishful thinking. But it was unfortunate. Obviously we were all in it together so it made it fair. But hopefully we should have better conditions in Korea.
Coming off that big win at the Mammoth Grand Prix [on Feb. 5], do you feel like you can book your ticket for the Olympics now?
No, I never really put the cart in front of the horse. You still have to win your spot. Even wearing the [Team USA] gear feels strange… I feel like I can wear it because I’ve been an Olympian already so I’ve earned it. But I just put it out on the table and take each day at a time.
What’s one goal you have for the next year?
I don’t know… no carbs! I’m trying to really stay on my fitness. It’s something I’ve never done before. Which sounds strange, I’ve been an athlete my whole life, but to be honest it just recently became cool to work out. People put [their work outs] on their Instagrams… It’s not cool at all, it’s not cool! Yeah athletes do it, I get it, it’s not socially accepted [in snowboarding] to be physically fit athlete, to work out, to wear the gear.
What inspired you to start working out?
It was wild, I never worked out before. I started last year. Now it’s like, if you went out and got a dog you can’t remember your life before the dog. I don’t know how I [competed] and trained before without taking it that seriously. I watched a tennis documentary with John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg and I got really inspired and I called up friends and got a trainer, got a physical therapist and started to be adamant about working out and staying in good shape. It’s paid off, I broke the record by going 26 feet out of the halfpipe, where the old record that I had was 24. So yeah, the strength and all that is all paying off.
What’s a typical work out for you?
It’s very light weights stuff. I’m not a bulky guy, I don’t have to tackle a 300 pound person so obviously it’s a different build. But one thing I do is a lot of mountain biking. I was very strong before but I didn’t have the endurance. I just hate doing spinning, I hate doing the spin class or anything like that. I find it way more motivating to be climbing a mountain and saying, “I want to get there!” So I’ve been doing a lot more of that. It’s helped out a lot, I’m never tired, I’m always motivated to go ride. And the other [type of work out] is more of a gymnastics type of thing where it’s all core and movement, it’s never stationary. I’m always on one leg balancing scenario. Because it groups all the smaller muscles to bring you back into balance. It’s never just sitting on a machine doing a leg press.
You say you're doing gymnastics--can you do a standing back flip?
Probably! I used to mess around a little, I had a trampoline around as a kid so I blame that for all the flipping and spinning.