Just Like a Rock Star

Shaun White is still out here, from mountaintop bars to the beach house to Pyeongchang—no matter what the president says

By Brandon Sneed

Photography by Ben Rasmussen

January 16, 2018

It’s mid-October, and Shaun White drops into a halfpipe in Cardrona, New Zealand, with one trick on his mind: the Double-Cork 1440, a double-flip with four full spins and a grab.

On his first hit he throws a 720, leaning into his landing to gather speed. As he rides up the opposite wall and prepares for launch, he doesn’t see the six-inch chunk missing from the top of the ramp and rides right over it.

Airborne, rising more than 20 feet above the deck of the pipe—and 40 feet above the ground—Shaun completes the rotations of the trick. But he’s drifting. And as he comes down, his board strikes the icy corner of the deck’s edge. As he falls toward the bottom of the pipe, the board digs into the snow. Shaun’s face slams into the ground.

As his coach and others rush to his side, the snow around him turns red.

Shaun’s forehead and the bridge of his nose are gashed wide open. He is cut clear to the bone. And his top lip is split in a way that makes it look unlike a lip but rather two small appendages dangling over his mouth. His appearance is almost inhuman; he seems more like an alien who has crash-landed here.

Somebody calls the hospital, which sends a helicopter.

Dude, Shaun thinks, fuck this.  

And he doesn’t know yet that on top of all that, his lungs are also filling with blood.

In all this, he wants to cry, but he manages to crack a torn smile.

“It’s always this looming thing in the distance, the possibility that it could all go south,” Shaun would tell me later. “And then to have it actually go south? I just took the heaviest hit in the worst possible scenario, and I’m somewhat OK. I was like, I’m still here.”

I first met Shaun in sunny Malibu back in late August, not long before the crash in Cardrona. We were around the corner from his beach house at The Native, a small hotel with just 13 rooms off the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a place where music stars like Bob Dylan hid out back in the day, revived by new owners in early 2017.

Shaun met me at Room 13 wearing dark jeans, a black collared shirt with white bird silhouettes on the chest and flip-flops. He was smiling and immediately went in for a hug.

We walked out back and sat in metal chairs on a gravel patio that overlooked the highway and Ollie’s Duck & Dive, a grill around the corner that Shaun frequents.

Mostly we talked about life and all the ways ambition can wreck it, how to be happy and, of course, his road back to next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.


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Just don’t call it a comeback. Shaun cringes when he hears people say that.

“I’m like, Fuck, not really, man,” he said, laughing. “Like, I’m still the guy.”

Of course, he’s not just The Guy. Shaun White is a living legend and has been for the better part of a decade. He has won 13 Winter X Games gold medals in addition to two Olympic golds. He has been the face of America at the Winter Games for the past 12 years. On a snowboard, he has done impossible things, and he’s made it look not only easy but fun. He rides fearlessly—in control but uninhibited. He looks, in a word, free.

At least, he did until 2014, at the Sochi Games.

There, Shaun failed to win a medal.

Since then, he’s done some thinking and changed his life, and on top of his mind these days is what the Olympics truly means to people. “I never really thought about it before, what it represents,” Shaun said. The Olympics used to be just another touchstone for the competitor in him, his two gold medals representing the greatest achievement possible in his craft. But now? “Now, I’m proud,” he said. “I’m going to win medals and to show that I can do it and all these other reasons. But another big reason is: You’re winning for the U.S. For your home.”

I wondered what an Olympic medal might mean to the country under Donald Trump’s presidency. Shaun’s good friend, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, told me that Shaun’s trip to Pyeongchang is compelling—that what he accomplishes could be an escape from Trump that America needs. “This is his fourth Olympics, right?” Hawk said. “Just that story alone is enough to engage people and make them maybe focus on this as opposed to the tweet storm.”

He added: “My hope for the Olympics is that Shaun wins and the president doesn’t tweet about it.”

When I relayed Hawk’s wishes to Shaun, he laughed. “Shaun did it!” he said, channelling Trump’s Twitter voice. “Send in the Patriot Missile! He destroyed the halfpipe!”

“My hope for the Olympics is that Shaun wins and the president doesn’t tweet about it.” 


Shaun then shrugged, and took on a more reflective tone. “I’m strapping this thing on my feet. It’s just this piece of wood, and we’re going down the mountain.” He continued: “But that’s sports. That’s what sports can do. It’ll distract me from all this stuff going on. That’s exciting. I hope that I can do that for others.”

But that’s not all Shaun can do, at least not in Hawk’s imagination. “It’ll provide some relief, I think, and it’ll make people proud,” Hawk said. “But it will give them hope, too.”

Shaun can remind people of something simple: “Just keep pushing forward,” Hawk said. “You can make it.”

“People ask me when I got over Sochi,” Shaun said, shaking his head. “I’m like, Fucking got over Sochi? I never got over Sochi. I’ll never get over Sochi. It’s part of me now. It’s like falling off your bike and scarring your elbow. You’re not like, Oh, now I’ll never try to jump off curbs with my bike anymore.

If anything, Shaun is more The Guy now than he was during Sochi. That’s where he got lost.

At Sochi, he tried to do something no snowboarder had ever done before—win gold in superpipe as well as slopestyle, an event in which competitors complete tricks through an elaborate obstacle course. He pulled out of slopestyle at the last minute—mostly because an ankle injury threatened to knock him out of both events—and then didn’t even medal in superpipe, crashing in one of his three heats and placing fourth.

This time around, no slopestyle for him. Reason being—he paused before saying it, taking a quiet moment to think—“I just decided to be kind to myself.”

Shaun told me that he had recently been reading a self-help book and taken some of its advice to heart. “I picked up this one in an airport, Being Happy!, or whatever, and it was just: ‘Be Happy.’ Literally, that is the first thing!” He laughed and added, “It sounds like such a blatant thing. And it’s so hard.”

He knows what you might think, looking at his life. How could this dude ever not be happy?

Well, around Sochi, he wasn’t. He’d lost his joy, and it was as if he were losing a superpower.

It happened quickly and seemed to come out of nowhere. He’d met his girlfriend, Sarah Barthel, not long before Sochi, and he was happy then. He made her happy, too. It was 2012, when Shaun was at peak Flying Tomato—he even still had his long red hair. “In a man bun,” Sarah remembered. Three years older than him, Sarah also remembered Shaun as “this wild child, just all over the place—in a good way.”

Shaun made her laugh, a lot, often by poking fun at himself.

Soon after he met Sarah, Shaun and another friend tried going backstage at Coachella to visit the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but they didn’t have passes, so a security guard stopped them. Shaun’s friend—perhaps intoxicated—shouted, “Come on! This guy’s AN AMERICAN HERO!”

The guard said, “You know what? You’re goddamn right he is!” and let them through.

Shaun told Sarah soon as he could. “It was the corniest thing!”

But with preparations for Sochi in 2013, away went that happy, wild, smart boy, chopping off his hair and seeming to take on the weight of the world in its place. “He took on this heaviness,” Sarah said. “There is a lot of emotion in Shaun in general.”

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“I was tired and really frustrated,” he said.

People thought his music was what brought him down. He seemed to have become obsessed. During training, he spent all his free time playing the guitar, sometimes for hours into the night. The summer before Sochi, he even packed up and went on tour with his new band, Bad Things. “I felt like it was such a negative distraction for him,” Tony Hawk said.

Shaun actually agrees, in part: “It absolutely was a distraction,” he said. “But it felt like a necessary one.”

“Music is cathartic,” said Sarah, half of the electro-rock duo Phantogram. “It’s like therapy. It saves.”

Shaun was in pain of all kinds, the sort of pain created by ambition and driving it—the sort of pain that makes you feel like you just aren’t allowed to be happy.

His ankle hurt all the time, for starters. He first injured it in 2009 training for Vancouver by crash-landing into a foam pit as he perfected the Double McTwist 1260—the Tomahawk. One of the crashes was so hard and violent that he rolled over the top of his board with enough force to chip a piece of bone off the ankle.

“Just a small piece,” the doctor said then. “It’ll be fine.”

Ever since, he’s felt every hard landing for days after.

Shaun was also struggling with a new understanding of who the world expected him to be, and how different he felt he was from that expectation. “I started doing commercials that were zany,” he said. “I’m pretty calm, normally. I like to have fun. But not when someone’s like, ‘OK, dance! Be the clown for us!’ That got to me. I was like, Am I doing it for them? Or for me? Is this who I really am?

As he began training for Sochi in the spring of 2013, even snowboarding started to feel that same sort of way. Social media gave him a window into what he was missing back home. On a mountain in the middle of nowhere, Shaun felt marooned with a cruel portal back into the reality he could be enjoying. He was sacrificing his personal life for his craft, and relationships were slipping and fading. He missed birthdays and Fourth of July parties and Saturdays at the beach. “You can see life going by,” he said.

Under the weight of all he was giving up, Shaun felt as if the only way to justify it was to go accomplish more. He convinced himself that “just” winning halfpipe again in Sochi wouldn’t be enough—that it wouldn’t be enough to become the only American to win three straight Winter Olympic gold medals. Hence, slopestyle. “He felt this need to do it,” Sarah said.

He’d won several X Games slopestyle golds, but completing the double at the Olympics was a different beast. “That was just too much,” he said.

There were many hard, lonely nights when Shaun didn’t know where his peace had gone and why his joy had followed it. Many of those late nights with the guitar, he was just wailing on it—if not until he felt happy, then at least until he felt the music more than the pain.

So, no. Music wasn’t the problem in Sochi. Music might have been the only thing that got him there. And because of music, he finally found the space he needed to figure out how to heal. To figure out it was OK to be kind to himself.

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.

Then, Cardrona.

A little less wind, a little more snow at the top of that one spot on the pipe, and maybe Shaun doesn’t exactly stick the landing, but maybe he doesn’t end up in the hospital, either.

That’s the sport.

After the helicopter got Shaun to the hospital, he had to wait overnight for surgery. He had to sit there alone in a room with his face torn apart.

In the morning, his face needed 62 stitches to be put back together.

And then, just a couple of days later, his chest was gurgling when he tried to breathe, so he went back to the hospital. X-rays found a pulmonary contusion in his lungs along with a lot of blood. They rushed him to intensive care.

After five days in the hospital, the doctors cleared Shaun to return home to L.A. And when he arrived, he did something that is often difficult for him: He actually rested. He didn’t rush back. He had fun. Hung out with Sarah, watched Stranger Things, played with his dog.

Through it all, Shaun would swing back and forth between thinking what he’d first thought after the crash—Dude, fuck this—and how lucky he was that this sort of thing hadn’t happened to him more. He remembered that he’d survived the worst snowboarding had to offer and still wanted to ride again.

He remembered his friend and former rival Kevin Pearce, who crashed and went into a coma after trying a similar trick in 2009. Pearce survived, but he had to relearn how to ride and never competed again.

He remembered Sarah’s sister, Rebecca.

“It’s perspective, right?” he said. “It’s like, There’s a lot going on, but I’m still breathing. It’s inevitable that you will fall. You will crash. It’s what you do after those crashes that dictates what kind of rider you are and who you’re gonna be in the end.”

He knew he would have to throw that trick again soon.

The only question was when—and how would it go.

The next time I saw Shaun was in early December at a bar and lounge at a resort in Breckenridge, Colorado. He was there for the Dew Tour, the second of four Olympic qualifiers. His face had fresh scars—a thick, brown ridge ran across the top of his forehead, a white line cut across the bridge of his nose, and a white mark split his top lip. (His shoe game, however, was on point: He wore a pair of black leather Gucci slippers with gaudy fur and a snake embroidered on the tongue.)

Shaun seemed relaxed, especially considering that the day before we met, he had wiped out in both of his qualifying heats. His only concern was whether he’d be able to throw the Double-Cork 1440 in Pyeongchang in February.

A few days before we met, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, had floated the idea that, given escalating tensions with North Korea, American athletes might not be allowed to compete. (Trump’s press secretary Sarah Sanders later that day said, “no official decision has been made,” followed a little while later by a tweet that the U.S. “looked forward to participating in the Winter Olympics.”)

“I feel like there would be a bit of an uproar,” Shaun said. “Can the president do that?”

I Googled it. In such a situation, the International Olympic Committee could still approve him to compete as an individual.

“So you’d have to compete without a flag?” Shaun said. He grinned and held up his fingers in the shape of rock-and-roll horns, sticking out his tongue. “Fuck it, dude! We’d rock on.”

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Sitting there in Breckenridge with Shaun, I couldn’t help but think about how excited he was, given his recent accident in October.

Shaun pulled out his phone and showed me some pictures of his face after his crash in Cardrona. “It was the most visually jarring injury I’ve ever had,” he said. “People would ask me, ‘What happened to you?’ I’d be like, ‘You ever eat a grenade? Don’t.’”

When I saw the pictures, I felt them in my bones.

The deep cuts, the torn lip.

“It’s crazy,” he told me. “Dude, we really can heal from so much—we have no idea.”

When the new year rolled around, Shaun took to the halfpipe again—this time, at Copper Mountain, just up the road from where we met. He had worked up the nerve to finally try the Double-Cork 1440 again. The skies were clear, the pipe was smooth. He dropped in, splaying out for a huge air on the first hit on his way to the opposite wall. On his second hit, he took off, reaching back, grabbing his board, flipping and spinning before landing smoothly. It was the kind of perfect execution you wish you could save for a competition.

Then, last Saturday, at the U.S. Grand Prix in Snowmass, he did it again—earning a perfect score of 100 and a ticket to Pyeongchang in the process—just in case you were wondering if he's still The Guy. ■

Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes. His writing has previously appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine and more, and has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.

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