PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — When the pressure was on, Shaun White landed the run that had haunted him for months, threw his hands into the air and tossed his helmet into the crowd. He didn’t wait to see his score to let the emotion of the day overtake him.
That’s the image that will remained burned into the mind of anyone who witnessed White’s historic performance Wednesday afternoon: the three-time Olympic gold medalist, head in hands, tears streaking his cheeks, humbled and human at the bottom of the halfpipe.
“I’ve never seen Shaun cry like that,” said his dad, Roger, tears in his eyes. “Seeing him cry made me cry. My tears are joy. It’s all over. All that pressure he’s had since Sochi, it built a fire under him.”
For White, the tears were about perseverance. Until he finished fourth at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, he’d never had to face the possibility that he might not be able to write his own ending. He’d had losses, but never in that mammoth a moment, never when the stage was set for him to drop in last, land a run and ride away the hero. “It’s awful to admit, but I was slightly defeated before I got to Sochi,” White said. “I was unmotivated. I didn’t have it in me.”
Until he crashed in New Zealand in October attempting to learn the cab double cork 1440, or YOLO flip, and suffered gruesome injuries that required 62 stitches in his face and five days in intensive care, he’d never realized how much he wanted a third Olympic gold.
“We were on this amazing path, I’m learning all these new tricks, feeling positive and then boom,” White said. “I’m in the hospital and I can’t recognize myself in the mirror. I was like, ‘What does this mean? Do I really want this? Stepping out on the snow again means I am willing to let this happen to myself again. That’s a big decision.”
His friends and family implored him to call it a career, spend more time at the beach, write a novel. “You’ve got medals,” White said they told him. “You’re blessed to be well off from this sport. You could easily sail off into the sunset.”
But he had set a goal, and he was going to complete it. When he thought about the alternative, he realized the decision wasn’t a hard one to make at all. Once he did, he went all-in. But his return to the sport wasn’t as easy for those around him to accept.
“I wanted him to stop snowboarding,” his mom, Cathy, said, tears streaming down her face. “I got that call in the middle of the night that he split his face wide-open, and it was horrific. But he wouldn’t stop. I was so upset with him. For him to come from that point to here is the strength of a true athlete. We never doubted him. We were just afraid.” For her, the tears were relief.
After the first runs Wednesday afternoon, White sat in first place with a 94.25, but had yet to attempt the cab double cork 1440 he believed he needed to win. Two weeks ago, at X Games Aspen, 19-year-old Japanese rider Ayumu Hirano became the first rider to land back-to-back 14s in a contest, and he planned to do the same in Pyeongchang. On his second run, Hirano, the silver medalist from Sochi, did just that and leapfrogged White into first place.
“Ayumu put in this amazing run,” White said. “And I had this overwhelming feeling of ‘I know I can do [the cab 1440], and I know I’m gonna do it, so just do it.'”
On White’s second run, he attempted back-to-back 14s — a combo he’d never even attempted in practice — but fell on the cab 14. “That gave him confidence,” said his coach, JJ Thomas, an Olympic bronze medalist who was part of the U.S. halfpipe sweep at the Salt Lake Games in 2002. As he spoke, Thomas began to cry. It’s been an emotional day, he said, an emotional few months. He knows how hard White has worked because it’s forced him to work harder than he has in his life. “I was like, this isn’t a bad thing, Shaun. It’s good. You have this. The judges know you’ve never done it before, so if you lay [the cab 14] down, you get surprise points. And he got those.”
Thanks for spoiling the ending, JJ. But in his third run, White landed a frontside double cork 1440-cab double cork 1440 combo to open the best run of his career.
“I found myself in this position that I love,” White said. “I do better when the pressure’s on and I’m at the top, one run to go, the world’s watching, my whole family’s here, everybody’s cheering for me and I put it down. On any other day, when all these people aren’t here, if you asked me to do that, I’d be terrified. There’s no motivation. But when you got the Olympics and the world watching, there was no doubt I was going to do that trick.”
White will never be able to escape October’s crash. He can’t look himself in the mirror without being reminded of one of the worst days of his life. The scars on his face are deep, but they’re fading. Until Wednesday, they were a reminder of failure, of a crossroads, a moment when he didn’t know if he had it in him to get back in a halfpipe. Now they’re a reminder to himself to never let go of a goal.
“I cried at my first Olympics and I’m crying at my fourth,” White said. “To win in that fashion meant the world to me. All the hard work and injuries and the decision to come back after all that, we just did it. I don’t think you could ever forget this day in snowboarding, and I’m proud I’m on top. I don’t say that often about myself.”
When White landed his third and final run, Hirano turned to the scoreboard and waited to find out if he would once again settle for silver. When White’s score appeared, the crowd erupted and White dropped to his knees.
But not everyone was rooting for White to have his storybook ending. Some people wanted to see Hirano’s score hold up because they believe he was shafted in Sochi, and they thought the judges got the podium wrong again today. Some simply don’t think White’s a guy worth cheering for. As he was dropping in to take his historic final run, stories about the sexual harassment lawsuit he settled back in May 2017 were making the rounds on Twitter. When asked in a post-contest news conference whether the lawsuit might tarnish his reputation, White said, “I’m here to talk about the Olympics, not gossip,” and then added, “I don’t think so. I am who I am, and I’m proud of who I am. My friends love me and vouch for me, and I think that stands on its own.”
For so long, he’s been focused on what’s coming. For today, he wanted to focus on the moment. His sister, Kari, however, was ready for her little brother to start looking toward the future.
“I haven’t seen Shaun cry like that since we were little,” Kari said. “All the missed holidays and all the work, it came down to that final run. I’m so proud. Now he can get back to his real duties. He’s my maid of honor this April, and he hasn’t picked the colors. He hasn’t learned the Fleetwood Mac song he’s playing on guitar. He hasn’t planned the party.”
Third gold medal in hand, it seems White’s work has just begun.