Next month’s Winter Games in Beijing will be the last Olympics for Shaun White. They’ve gotta be, right? “Oh, for sure,” the three-time gold medalist confirmed to Rolling Stone on Wednesday, a little jet-lagged — and very wistful — over the phone from Switzerland.
Too bad the man who re-invented snowboarding hasn’t exactly made the team yet.
He’d already under-performed in Olympic qualifying events late last year. Then White, who underwent two open-heart surgeries as a child, came down with Covid over the holidays. Lingering symptoms — light-headedness, serious fatigue — led him to bow out of a second-to-last tryout over the weekend at Mammoth Mountain in California. “I realized that this was gonna be my last go, and I’ve just sat back and taken these punches — Oh, Covid! — because of course it wasn’t gonna be easy,” he tells RS.
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The orange-haired “Flying Tomato” was on the cover of Rolling Stone after winning gold in 2006, at age 19. Four years later, he set three goals: Win gold again. Get on the cover of Rolling Stone again. And get his own memorabilia behind glass at the Hard Rock Hotel. White accomplished the first, and he remembers being told he could bump Jimi Hendrix from a planned cover. But as a fledgling guitar player, White would have to pull a combo trick. So he had leather pants custom-made — in the style of the American flag short-shorts he once saw Axl Rose wear onstage — then hung the medal from his neck at the photoshoot… and lit a snowboard on fire. Sorry, Jimi.
A disappointing finish at the 2014 Games led to an introspective, three-year break from snowboarding, compounded by a 2016 lawsuit by a former bandmate, since settled, that alleged sexual and verbal harassment. (“I regret my behavior of many years ago and am sorry that I made anyone — particularly someone I considered a friend — uncomfortable,” he told the New York Times.) Then a 2018 crash that left White with 62 stitches on his face. He won gold again anyway. “I feel like I got that storybook ending,” White says. “So when these Olympics came around, I was like, ‘Well, man, why not?’”
In the coming days, Team USA will almost certainly flex its discretionary power to sign up the most popular Olympian of our time for a trip to Beijing. But then, White says, it’s onto adult things: A friend gave him a book of the 100 best hotels in the world. (“So, it’s like, I wanna stay at all these.”) He’s interested in having children. (“That sounds so exciting and new and terrifying at the same time.”) And on Thursday, he’s launching a lifestyle brand, Whitespace, featuring boards and streetwear. (“It’s really exciting to open that door,” he says. “I’ve done the same thing for as long as I can remember.”) Not that White, at age 35, doesn’t have one last trick in him. (“The gut hasn’t showed up yet. The hair’s still there. Right?”)
Fighting off a case of the sniffles that he swore wasn’t Covid-related, White spoke to Rolling Stone about Will Smith’s advice for avoiding trolls, how his career reminds him of the Rocky franchise, and the moment he knew it was over.
So, you got Covid. That must have been pretty scary, given that you only have this one Olympic qualifier left to make the team – and that you literally have a hole in your heart. Covid symptoms can still be a real shock to the system. What’s that Stone Temple Pilots song? “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart.” Great solo….
Man, I always think of “Kickstart My Heart” with Mötley Crüe. [Laughs.] Yeah, it was difficult. Honestly, I was so thankful that Covid didn’t affect me like it’s affected so many people. I was able to be like, “Okay, well I just feel a little run down.” And I think the big issue for me was I have a heart condition and respiratory issues. It just hit me really hard. So I finally started testing negative just before the Mammoth competition, and I got there and, you know, just because I’m testing negative doesn’t mean I feel incredible. So I kind of was navigating that event like, “Should I even be here? Should I be trying this?” And I’m like: “You know what? I’m here. I might as well give it a go.” It’s an important qualifying event. And during the qualifying run, I landed really flat on my last landing of the last trick and kind of jammed my ankle. And I was sitting there like, “Wow, okay.” I already felt crummy. Now the ankle. Like: “Are these signs telling me to pull back?” I talked to the team coaches and people, and they’re like, “Well, just get out of here. If you’re not doing well, just save yourself.”
What do you think of Team USA deciding to go for a vaccine mandate, given that guys like Novac Djokovic, Kyrie Irving, and Aaron Rodgers have taken such a superstar stand to protect their bodies and their freedom? Do you understand where they’re coming from? Or is Shaun White a little more Tom Brady than Aaron Rodgers?
I don’t know their full situation. I made a personal choice to do it, and I’m pretty thankful that I did, because I think that this Covid that I contracted wasn’t nearly as bad as if I wasn’t vaccinated. I made that choice, and, you know, it’s just kind of the way the world is right now: I went to the spa and they’re like, “Let me check your vaccination.” My thing wasn’t even valid. I had to use the PCR to get on the plane… to get into the spa, ’cause they’re like, ‘Well, it can’tbe over X amount of months old. It’s gotta be recent.”
Speaking of Tom Brady, have you and him been trading any advice as you barrel into what could be your last Olympics and his last Super Bowl at the same exact time? Do you guys text each other?
I haven’t spoken to him recently, but he’s an amazing person, and what a competitor. I spoke most recently to Tony Hawk. We talked about retirement, and he basically was like, “Man, I retired ages ago, and look how much I’ve done since.” There’s a whole life outside of competing, and you’re really humbled and pleased once you kind of take that first step. And he’s like, “Honestly, I wish I retired years before I did.”
Tony and Tom have those old bones. And while you’re the oldest Olympian left in your sport, you’ve still got that 35-year-old body maintenance left in you. Do you believe in cannabis as a way to maintain the body, at least in the off-season?
Not really. I’ve never been a huge fan of cannabis. I remember CBD ointments and things in muscles and things becoming popular. But not as much, you know, despite the stereotype of snowboarding. It hasn’t really been a thing for me.
The NBA and Major League Baseball have effectively eliminated weed testing. And yet you’ve got someone like Sha’Carri Richardson who loses her dream for a little THC that she said just helped her hide her pain from her mother’s death. Does it seem like the IOC should get with the times and decriminalize weed already, whether it’s for the stereotypical snowboarders or people dealing with other stuff?
I don’t know. I mean, there’s a lot of struggles going on out there. I will say that, it’s interesting: My uncle has gone through a lot of… he suffers certain ailments and illnesses, and it’s definitely helped him cope rather than, you know, he was on painkillers. And that was a really, really tough time for everybody. And so, yeah, I just see it around more. I’m sure there will be a day when it’s really not frowned upon by any society or any group of people.
I was re-reading your 2006 Rolling Stone cover story, and you were talking about how snowboarding had already changed “these gnarly ruffians” to “family men.” To what extent are you accepting the idea of becoming a family man, especially after sitting around at home through a pandemic with a woman you love?
I always kinda lived in these two different worlds. My whole career, I’ve never lived in the mountains. So I would go home and be Shaun: I would go to school, and I had these friends. I’d go to the skate park and hang out and play handball. And then I had this whole life where I was Shaun White on the mountain: I had sponsors, and I had expectations to win and all these different things. And so it really kind of shaped and changed who I was. But I feel like that family unit coming home, like I always was kind of part of that. But, yeah, then we had a pandemic. Being at home.
It changes everything, right? Would you and Nina [Dobrev, his actress girlfriend with nearly 26 million Instagram followers] still sit around on the couch these last two years, watching the likes and reading the comments? Or have you held on to a kind of stillness throughout this historic time of ours?
I remember reading the comments when I was younger and then — not to name-drop — but I was at dinner with Will Smith and a bunch of people. And we were talking about social media and he was just like, “Here are the rules: Do what feels right to you. Be real. Be open. And do not read the comments. Never read the comments.” After that, I was like, “Okay.” So I just stopped. In her world, it’s so wild…. But the pandemic really put the pause button on things. At the time, I loved filling my world with things to do: The next competition! Oh, there’s a premiere tonight! Do you wanna go? Oh, so-and-so’s having a party! And basically having all those options eliminated really kind of – like I missed just going to the movie theaters…. But I feel like everybody was in such a hurry to jump back into life when things kind of opened up and obviously shut down. I don’t know, I wasn’t in a rush. I was just pretty open to learning this lesson of stillness. And I think I’ll kind of carry that with me forever.
Shaun White, of the United States, after his third run in the snowboarding halfpipe finals, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, during the Dew Tour at Copper Mountain, Colo.
As someone who has already been both an American hero and sort of a rock star, what is your vision of retirement at, say, 36 and 66? Are you a pro skateboarder, or is this stillness just moving you toward… more stillness?It’s interesting: My brother and sister both started families of their own. My brother’s got two sons, and my sister has a daughter with one on the way. That family life sounds so exciting and new and terrifying at the same time. A whole ‘nother kind chapter in life. What would that be like? Where would I be living? All that time that gets devoted to training and physical therapy and working out — all those different things that you really put all that effort into — like, “Wow, what if I shifted that into more family? Into charitable things? And the company of my own?” It’s really exciting to open that door.
Mental health is a real stigma that Olympians have helped to smash. Naomi Osaka. Simone Biles. To what extent has thinking about that, whether it’s therapy or whatever, helped you wrap your head around some of the tough times, as well as some of these heady concepts around aging, around fame?
I became very taken aback by the thought that life’s happening for you, not to you. These things, there’s something to be learned in any situation. And after that 2018 Olympics, it was so random, but I ended up going to a bunch of Tony Robbins events. I was invited to be a guest at his house and speak to his group. Speaking of Tom Brady, he was there, and Michael Phelps. I remember listening to Michael talk about his struggles and things in his life. And I was just like, “Wow.” I’d never really heard an athlete open up about these struggles, and you kind of think you’re alone in that. Tracing back through times in my life where things weren’t good, or I was acting out in my twenties or whatever it was, you go, “Oh, wow.” I never really kind of had an outlet to talk about it or thought it was okay to talk about it or show any kind of weakness.
You said recently that you think these Olympics are gonna be your last run. Yes or no: Are you, as of right now, planning to retire after the Beijing Games?
Oh, for sure. Yeah. I got really romanced by the idea of finishing my career where I started it, which would be Italy [the site of the 2026 Winter Olympics]. It’s kind of like Rocky. He doesn’t even win in the first movie! It’s who you have to become to get to that point. And through this journey, I’ve realized, “Wow, certain things just aren’t there that used to be there.” It takes me longer to practice; it’s harder. It’s these little signs that have been coming to me. And it finally hit me one day: I was in Austria training a couple months ago, and I was just like, “You know what? This is it.”
It must have been hard.
I was sad. But then, like, super-joyful at the same time. I knew this moment would come, and it was just so wild that that moment had arrived: It’s kind of like you realizing you’re graduating high school. You’re like, “Well shit! I’m not gonna see my friends! But whatever, man, I don’t have to wake up early and go to this class!” No one’s gonna tell me what to do next. This amazing wave of freedom started hitting me pretty hard, and it just felt incredible. So I feel like I’m making the right decision, and it wasn’t something taken lightly. But, yeah, definitely, I’m done after this one.
Well, you gotta make the team first, right?
Exactly. And that’s why I flew all the way to Switzerland. You know, they have a discretionary spot so they can kinda pick people for the team. And I don’t know the full process, but–
If you’re going with the high-school analogy, I think you’re kind of the prom king. It would be pretty hard to leave you off.
I didn’t want to leave it up to a vote, so I’m out here trying to get it done.
Are you confident that Covid’s not gonna get in the way? If Omicron wants to take the medal stand in Beijing, would you embrace a pause in the action, like the NHL just did with its season?
It’s pretty wild. I mean, jokingly, some of my competitors and coaches that I know from other teams were like, “Well, it was a good time to get it, if you’re gonna get it, right before the Olympics.” But honestly, at this point, anything could happen. And it’s such a weird headspace to be in, not being confident going in that this is what’s gonna happen…. So would it surprise me? No. Would it be unfortunate? Yeah. It would be pretty terrible, not just for me, but for many people that are trying to have their moment.
Positive tests are inevitable in Beijing. Do you ever worry that fans are gonna be like, “Well, these athletes are the healthiest people in the world, and they’re all vaccinated, and they still got a breakthrough case, and they can still play on. So why the hell should I get vaccinated or even take this virus seriously anymore?” Do you feel like Olympians can be a kind of antidote to that skepticism, as role models?
It’s all kind of fun and games, and people toy around with it, and then you turn around and my girlfriend’s family member was on a life-support machine and he’s fighting for his life. And then people are just dying. Just straight-up dying. So I was also a person that was like, “Oh! I don’t see the reasons for this and for that!” And it’s like, “Oh, that’s protocol.” I will say it’s pretty incredible that the Olympics is willing to risk and take on this, and try to put all these hoops and hurdles in place so that people are safe. And the vaccination, that’s all part of it, obviously, is trying to keep people safe.
At the same time, the show must go on, right? This is China.
Yes and no. I mean, they’ve easily canceled plenty of things. They could easily turn around and go, “Hey, it’s too much. Everybody’s testing positive, and we’re not doing it.” It could go either way.
Are you surprised that Olympians haven’t boycotted China, given all the human-rights and forced-labor issues? Does the show need to go on?
The whole point of the Olympics is to bring people together under the name of sports, and that’s what it’s kind of always been about — that’s the goal. … And so if that doesn’t get to happen, and politics and divide, all these things get in the way, it’s definitely gonna be interesting to see how it goes down. But I know most Olympians that train their whole lives, to try to compete at the Olympics, want to compete at the Olympics.
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