After Sochi, Shaun planned to go on tour again with Bad Things in the summer of 2015, but when the band’s lead singer moved to New York in the middle of some personal turmoil, that was that.
Shaun’s schedule was suddenly clear, but Sarah was on the road, leaving him very much alone and without much to do. He wasn’t even skateboarding because his ankle kept hurting so much.
“So I had time to actually sit and contemplate,” Shaun said. And he had himself a reckoning. “I have this beautiful beach house in Malibu, and, like, I had never been there,” he said. “People were like, ‘Dude, how’s the wave?’ And I’d be like, ‘I couldn’t tell you.’ I’d accomplished so much, and in realizing all these goals, all these shiny objects of success that you strive toward, that the world congratulates you on, I had neglected my relationships with my family, my brother, my sister. I hadn’t seen my dog, ever.”
So he took his dog and went to Point Dume. “This beautiful moment came,” he said. “I found myself just like, Man, if I’m not skating, and I don’t have the music, I guess I’ll just enjoy my house.”
Again and again throughout the summer, he opened up his house to all those people whose lives he’d been watching pass by while trapped in the mountains. Shaun threw barbecues for his family practically every weekend. His friends had standing invitations to show up whenever; but he invited other acquaintances, too.
When he saw David Beckham at a Burton store, he told him to bring his kids over so they could try out the halfpipe in the backyard. (Beckham's kids tore it up while the soccer star got a nice sunburn.) On another occasion, Shaun hosted one of Sarah’s friends, Miley Cyrus, and some folks from the band The Flaming Lips. Miley rocked out on Shaun’s Steinway grand piano, covering this song and that. Everyone else sang along, one big happy group, karaoke-style.
Shaun also overhauled his approach to training. He began a new workout regimen. He hired his first personal physical therapist, Esther Lee, who had previously served as the full-time PT to Serena and Venus Williams.
Shaun began making lists to help visualize his goals. He fired his business manager, agency, publicist, personal assistant and marketing director, then found new ones. “Switched everything,” he said. He even sold off most of his half-dozen or so houses.
He secured a new coach, hiring JJ Thomas, the same guy who knocked Shaun off the Team USA roster in 2002 when Shaun was 15.
About five weeks later, he won his first snowboarding competition of the season, the Dew Tour Mountain Championships, beating some of the guys who had medaled ahead of him in Sochi.
Then, in January of 2016, Shaun arrived at his hotel in Switzerland for his third competition when he got a phone call. His former personal assistant (and Sarah’s older sister), Rebecca, had died from suicide. She had been dealing with anxiety and depression. Shaun booked the first flight back to L.A. to console his girlfriend. “He made sure to take care of me,” Sarah said.
Deep down Shaun was hurting, too. He didn’t do or say much the next couple of weeks. “That really put things in perspective,” Shaun told me. “We make these plans … What guarantee do you have that we’re going to get there? Like, what’s actually important?”
In February, Shaun was noticeably absent from the Winter X Games, and many in the sports world wondered why. At his next competition—the 2016 Burton U.S. Open in Vail, Colorado—Shaun tried to push forward. He placed dead last in slopestyle, but the next day on the halfpipe he looked renewed. He finished first, and on one run he flew 26 feet above the lip, higher than he or anyone else ever had, a new record. For a moment, he seemed lighter and freer than he had been in a long time.
But he was still in a lot of pain.
In the fall of 2016, just before Halloween, Shaun finally decided to do something about his ankle. He went to a sports lab and learned how much harm his untreated injury was causing. He was taking shorter steps, the doctors said, which, in turn, strained his hip, which then hurt his back, and so on. An X-ray revealed massive scar tissue buildup in Shaun’s ankle, along with several free-floating bone fragments. “Just a small piece” had done some major damage, one chipped piece of bone chipping away more pieces with every impact.
“The lights turned on,” Shaun said.
It became clear why he’d been having trouble grabbing his board on tricks: He couldn’t bend his ankle far enough to make the reach. To prevent more pain, he had also started wearing tighter, stiffer boots.
“All these things were limiting me,” Shaun told me.
He needed surgery.
The operation went fine, but Shaun tried to rush the recovery, which turned the whole situation into a nightmare. He camped out on the couch to ice his ankle and watched episodes of The Walking Dead. “Just hitting the pain pills,” he said. He used a cold compressor ankle wrap to help with inflammation and reduce swelling, but he used it so much and for such long periods that he got frostbite.
Esther had to massage the area for hours a day to keep blood flowing. (“Torture sessions,” Shaun recalled.)
In time, the frostbite healed, and, after a while, Shaun’s ankle felt better than it had in 10 years. His life and mind became clearer too, the things that caused him pain having been alleviated.