The White knight rides again
ASPEN In a tiny hotel room at the base of Buttermilk, just far enough off from the buzz of whizzing snowmobiles and the constant thump of the PA system to speak at normal decibels, Shaun White sits to answer questions.If you want five minutes with the biggest action sports star in the world, you’ve got to wait your turn – behind Rolling Stone, The New York Times and various ESPN production teams.Finally, after being summoned from the hotel room to the top of ESPN’s XCenter studio for another interview, White is free to talk while he walks back to the private athletes’ tent.His voice is a bit hoarse, the result of a slight cold and too much talking.His eyes look a tad heavy – he was just in Switzerland last week – but otherwise, he seems to be in good spirits.The Winter X Games is his first domestic contest this winter – a shift from years past – and he’s excited to be back at Buttermilk to defend his slopestyle and superpipe titles. “Every year I show up at this event, and I don’t even know what to expect,” he says, pushing his mop of fiery red hair away from his eyes. “I come here with kind of a set plan of what tricks I want to do, and then I see everybody else, and I kind of rise to the occasion. I always end up making up like a new necessary trick to win on the spot if I need it.”Last year, those necessary tricks always seemed to be there whenever White needed them. He didn’t lose a single contest the whole season – an unheard-of string of 12 wins in a sport notoriously averse to consistency.
The highlight came in the Winter Olympics halfpipe final in Bardonecchia, Italy, where, after a scare in the qualifying round, he rolled to the Olympic gold medal. His winning run included a McTwist, then a frontside 1080, a Cab 1080, a frontside 900 and a backside 900.As for which tricks he plans to unleash this week in slopestyle and superpipe, he remains coy.”Some magic,” he says. “Some smoke, some mirrors.”
He admits that his streak from last year is over. Sort of.He lost to Antti Autti in the second round of head-to-head competition in early December at the Air & Style slopestyle competition at Munich’s Olympic Stadium, which repeat rival Travis Rice went on to win. A week later, he won the overall title at the Nissan X-Trail at the Tokyo Dome. Last week, at the European Open in Laax, Switzerland, high winds and low visibility forced the cancellation of the slopestyle finals, so White jetted back to the U.S. “Really, I think the streak kind of ended for me when I lost my first skate event this summer,” he says. “But we don’t really look at snowboarding in years, we look at it in seasons. My season ended, and I was undefeated, and then this season started in December.”Really, White says, he wanted to take a step away from contests this season after focusing so much on them last year. After the Winter X Games, he plans to travel and film with Mack Dawg Productions. He says people are wrong to think that he’s accomplished everything he possibly can in snowboarding.”I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of stuff for me,” he says. “Everybody thinks the Olympics is kind of the end of the thing, but I just really feel like it just hit me that I’m at the point that I can do whatever I want to do. I can show up at this event, or not show up. I can film, I can learn new tricks, I can really do whatever I want and still stay in the limelight with the snowboarding thing. It’s just kind of this magical position I’ve found.”
Magical position? “I wasn’t really gunning for contests this year, I just want to have fun,” he adds. “Part of me going to all those different places [this year] was that I have this huge fan movement out there. I think it’s the coolest thing that we meet fans. It’s more of just showing up for the fans now and putting on a show.”In the same breath, White says he has reached a level of fame that has changed his daily life. The streak, the Olympic medal, the hair, plus his myriad endorsements (everything from snowboards to soft drinks) have made him impossible to miss nearly anywhere in the world.He’s got his fair share of humorous stories about star-struck fans, some comparable to what rock stars encounter on the road. He says he can’t just go into public settings anymore without having an exit strategy.The upside of stardom certainly outweighs the negatives, however.”Sometimes, it’s a little strange,” he says. “I’ve never had to plan where I go before. Now, it’s like, ‘Oh wait, I can’t go in the lodge because there’s too many kids in there. Oh, I can’t do this or that.'”
For every story like that one, though, there is another like the anecdote White recounts before he flashes his healthy smile, then says good-bye, sneaking away to where no one can ask him any more questions.He explains he was flying out to Denver a “few trips back” and was sitting in first class when a young female fan stopped the entire line boarding the plan to talk to him.If that wasn’t enough, during the flight she marched back up the aisle, through the first-class curtain to find White again.”She was in the back pretty far,” White says. “Then she wakes my friend up [to talk to me] and is like, ‘Hey, can I get your autograph.’ Then she was like, well we should really hang out. Then she proceeded to write her number down on the book that I had, but while everyone is watching her. She just had this gantlet to walk through on the way back. Everybody was looking at her.””I just thought that was badass of her to walk the gantlet for me.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
Let’s make some skiing predictions. I made my X Games snowboarding predictions a day earlier and remain only mildly lukewarm in terms of confidence, but maybe I’ll feel better about the skiers.