One of Shaun White’s greatest fears is finding himself upside-down above a halfpipe with no idea where he’s going to land.
Time and again over two decades, he has decided the risk is worth it.
As he embarked this month on the quest to make his fifth Olympics, the world's most famous halfpipe rider says living a life full of calculated risks is still part of his DNA — a mindset that, these days, is less taken for granted in all-or-nothing sports such as his than it was a mere 12 months ago.
“I've been lost in the air before, and it's terrifying,” White said in an interview with The Associated Press. “You're flying around and you don't know where you are and you're hoping for the best. The sky color matches the color of the snow. We never really had a name for that. I was intrigued when I heard they call it the ‘twisties’ in gymnastics.”
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Simone Biles' decision to pull out of the women's team final at the Tokyo Games earlier this year resonated with athletes throughout the world, including White, and advanced the conversation about many of the mental health challenges Olympians face.
Just as twisting and somersaulting over a vault can be a life-threatening endeavor, doing the same over an icy, rock-hard halfpipe is among the most dangerous of Olympic pursuits. White was famously helicoptered off the halfpipe in New Zealand after a grisly wreck in the run-up to the 2018 Olympics. When he overcame the 62-stitch injury to his face and won the gold medal in Pyeongchang, it marked a stunning crescendo to a comeback that even he wasn't sure was possible.
White believes the key to an athlete putting him or herself at risk over and over again is knowing you’re doing it for the right reasons — a key component missing from Biles’ mindset when she stepped away.
“It’s scary to be out there alone,” White said. “And when you go out and do that, you want it to be your choice. You don’t want to feel like you have to do this because of some reason other than, ‘Hey, I want to do this.’”
The stakes will be every bit as high, if not higher, this year. A triple cork jump — involving 1620 degrees of spin above the halfpipe — could very well be the trick needed to win the Olympics. It involves another half-revolution of spin than the back-to-back 1440s that White used to win in South Korea. White used to practice the triple cork into an air bag, but nobody has yet pulled it off in a high-stakes contest.
Meanwhile, at the season's first Olympic qualifying event this week, everyone saw the risks involved. In Saturday's final of the U.S. Grand Prix, Japanese rider Raibu Katayama had to be taken by sled off the course after hitting his head and neck on the lip of the halfpipe. Earlier in the week, freeskier Connor Ladd was taken to a hospital in Denver after suffering a traumatic head injury. His family said Ladd has made progress but has a long journey ahead.
Another freeskier, Gus Kenworthy, pulled out of the contest. He said it's not uncommon for action-sport athletes to get lost in the air.
“I didn't have a sense of where the sky and the ground and everything was, and that's why I pulled out,” said Kenworthy, who won the silver medal in slopestyle in 2014.
White withdrew from snowboarding's Olympic slopestyle contest in 2014 — part of a Russian adventure that turned out nothing like he'd hoped.
“It was hard and it was harsh,” White said. “I got a bunch of backlash from other competitors saying I chickened out. But I had to be confident with myself and say, ‘You know, look, this is the comfort level, and it’s not there.'"
White also finished fourth in the halfpipe that year. The setbacks forced him to step back and rethink what made him love snowboarding, and all the risk that comes with it, in the first place.
Part of the mission between 2014-18 was to get back to the top, and do it without so much noise from the outside — sponsors, business projects and the like.
It's like that again this time around but with an even tighter-knit feel.
He's working with his brother, Jesse, again, and is in a relationship with actress Nina Dobrev, whom he met at a motivational seminar. Now 35 and with the end of his career much closer than the beginning, White says he's entering this Olympic journey with a refined perspective on what's really important.
In his teens and 20s, he battled against cynics who wondered why he was devoting his life — putting his life on the line, in fact — for a sport that was not accepted in the mainstream. He coupled that with a desire to show that not only was he in a legit sport, but that he was the best at it, and that, yes, you could become rich and famous doing it.
“After a while, drawing from that same fuel of motivation isn't sustainable,” he said. “So then, you go, ‘OK, cool, what else is there?' And then I look and see things that are important to me: Being a good friend. Being someone who others can count on. I had to take this hard look at what I was doing, and now, this understanding of who I am in the greater picture has really helped me with everything. With feeling content."
Don't get him wrong. He'd still like to win on Feb. 11, the day the gold medal is awarded on the mountains outside of Beijing.
If he does, it will add to an already legendary trophy case. If he doesn't — well, it won't be the first time he's come up short.
Perhaps the biggest triumph, he says, has already been secured. He's still doing this at age 35, and he's ready to give everything in a quest for a fifth Olympics because he's doing it for the right reasons.
“I'm feeling motivated and I'm feeling like I can,” White said. “It's a different feeling but the drive and the motivation is there.”