The future is now for Shaun White
BRECKENRIDGE – Asked for his thoughts on being the Olympic favorite in snowboarding’s halfpipe discipline, Shaun White, 19, raises his eyebrows. “People are expecting stuff?” he says, feigning astonishment. “That’s news to me.””Naw,” he adds, seriously now, “I know there’s all this pressure, but there’s always pressure for everything.”This is particularly true for White, that shaggy little red-haired ball of fury who has been living up to expectations since his single digits. Like it or not, the pressure is greater still this season.White has won just about every snowboarding competition that exists in the modern action sports world, which he helped create. Winter X Games, U.S. Open, slopestyle, halfpipe – if he’s in it, chances are he’s the favorite. But this year he is taking on a different role, one that requires – or would seem to require – much of what White isn’t. The favorite to win an Olympic gold medal is generally not a character who made his mark as “Future Boy.” Nor do traditional gold medal favorites have curly red hair that droops to their shoulders, or wear masks that conceal their faces.Barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, White will be all of those things, the Olympic favorite who doesn’t fit the mold. “I’m really not that clean-cut guy,” he said. “I’m not that bad, either, but I’m definitely not gonna cut my hair before I go, that’s for sure.”Perhaps before this week’s season-opening U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix events at Breckenridge, there was still some question whether White would qualify for the U.S. team. Not now. He won the both halfpipe contests with ease, clinching an Olympic berth Saturday after recording an unheard-of score – 47.1 on a 50-point scale – in his first run in the second pipe final.
The run included two back-to-back 1080s – the first time White tried such a combination in competition. The 1080s were sandwiched between two 900s, amounting to 11 full 360-degree rotations in sucession. When it comes to being the favorite for gold in Turin, there is no longer a need to question White’s confidence.When you ask the U.S. Snowboard Team’s head freestyle coach, Bud Keene, about White’s image, and how it doesn’t conform to, say, that of an alpine ski racer or hockey player or figure skater, Keene broadens the picture.”I think that snowboarders in general don’t fit the clean-cut Olympic mold, and that’s the beauty,” he said. “We’re all really psyched to be involved with the Olympics, but we’re also psyched to bring snowboarding in its true form to the Olympics. We’re not there to play the Olympic game, we’re there to snowboard.”And Shaun’s just like that,” Keene said. “You know, he grows his hair like he wants, he does what he wants, he kills it in the pipe, and he’s going to the Olympics for that.”He doesn’t fit the mold, but none of us do.”Should White follow through on his promise and win gold in Italy, it would provide something of a final chapter to a talent unlike any that came before him. White is the most successful snow-skate crossover athlete in history, capable of jaw-dropping feats on either board.Lately, however, he has taken snowboarding to another level, a level many have never seen. For those who make their living within the sport’s freestyle discipline, it’s been hard not to notice.
“He’s pretty much better than anybody else, and he doesn’t even try,” Breckenridge veteran Chad Otterstrom said. “He’s Captain Insano Wonderboy. He’s the miracle boy. As far as halfpipe riding goes, he’s by far the best I’ve seen.”Otterstrom, 29, then added, “I’ve been snowboarding longer than he’s been alive.””He’s a machine, just going boom, boom, boom, boom,” Switzerland’s Gian Simmen said, while pumping his fist into his open palm. “Back nine, front 10, Haakon 10 – I’ve seen it in practice. I wish I could do those tricks.”Simmen won the first Olympic halfpipe gold medal, in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. He said the only rider with a shot at White in 2006 is Finland’s Antti Autti, who won the Winter X Games last year – ahead of White – by being the first to land back-to-back 1080s in a competition.White, a refreshingly transparent Carlsbad, Calif., native who plays poker and video games when he’s not tending to his professional obligations, is ho-hum about the rigors of competition.”I’ve been competing since I was 7 years old,” he said. “I feel really comfortable when they say ‘Go’ at the top.”Easily the most well-paid athlete in snowboarding, White counts among his list of sponsors two nontraditional brands, Target and Playstation. In that sense he has extended snowboarding’s own nontraditional image and all before he turned 20.”It was crazy, because when I first got approached by Target, I was like, man, that is so cool, because I go there to buy my video games,” he said. “I go get towels, DVDs, everything I need.”
White leads not only in competition, but also in the way snowboarders present themselves. Since he ripped off a T-shirt sleeve to protect his fair-skinned face from the sun and wind three years ago, kids across the country have taken to covering their own mugs. If it’s not a T-shirt sleeve, it’s a bandana. White created his own fashion, without ever intending to.”It’s cool. It’s kinda become my thing,” he said.The 5-foot-8, 150-pound redhead hopes his next “thing” is shaded gold. After missing out on an Olympic berth by just three-tenths of a point at the final 2002 Grand Prix event – he was 15 at the time – White is as determined and serious as he has ever been this season.And while he’s no sure thing, he’s not far off.”I’m gonna go to Vegas and bet on him if I can,” Otterstrom said, only half-joking.White says he appreciates the confidence shown in him by coaches like Keene and veterans like Otterstrom. He admits, too, that he understands the gravity of the approaching Winter Games is different than anything he’s been a part of. Perhaps most telling, he is humbled by it all.He considers the Olympic pinnacle, the singular stage on which he will represent his legacy, his country, this sport.”Hopefully,” he says, “I can do ’em proud.”
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