Shaun White’s final scene ended with his helmet aloft in a salute and with his rivals cheering and hugging him. What it didn’t end with was a magical conclusion, one last Olympic medal to cap the most extraordinary career in snowboarding history.
The man who began as the Flying Tomato took his last ride at his fifth Games 16 years after he collected the first of his three halfpipe gold medals in Turin. He finished it with a flawed final run but with pride that he remained a contender on the global stage until the end.
“All my fellow competitors were so kind,” said the 35-year-old White after he finished fourth by less than 3 points. “A lot of them patted me on the back and told me that the tricks in the sport wouldn’t be where it is today without me pushing.”
For two decades White set the stylistic standard for halfpipe, defying gravity and urging his rivals to join him. So it was fitting that Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, who’d won silver at the last two Games, claimed gold by executing not just one unprecedented triple cork but one in each run.
That feat delighted White, whose daring cleared the path for Hirano and everyone else in the field. “He’s always showing me things I can’t experience yet,” said Hirano. “He’s always been my motivation.”
White always was banging against barriers, especially imaginary ones. “I’ve always been trying to push and progress and do the next biggest thing and try to pick up on what trends are happening within the sport and be ahead of the curve,” he said. “And I feel like I had a helping hand to inspire them.”
When snowboarding was added to the Olympic program in 1998 purists thought that it was a sellout, that the X Games were where the sport’s best performers showcased their artistry and authenticity.
That changed when the American men swept the halfpipe podium in Salt Lake City and stamped their mark on the event. “We were just looking over at each other in awe,” said Ross Powers, who won the gold medal. “We didn’t really know what we’d done.”
By 2006 White, with his flowing red hair and exuberant grin, was the teenaged face of the halfpipe, pushing its creative boundaries. He won the gold medal there, then did it again at the next Games in Vancouver. So it was a shock, both to his sport and himself, when White missed the podium in Sochi in 2014.
That was the impetus for him to keep going for another quadrennium. He couldn’t let the enduring memory of his career be that of him sliding down the pipe on his backside.
“I’d lost something,” White said. “I’d lost this edge that I had and it was a really emotional and heavy sort of journey to find that again.”
His PyeongChang triumph, with White coming from behind on the final run, was profoundly satisfying. He could have left the sport at 31 with a full trophy case and he might have had his subsequent foray into skateboarding, his original passion, gone better.
But after missing the cut at the 2019 world championships White decided against trying out for the US team for the Tokyo Games. “Am I willing to walk away from snow?” he asked himself. “It just was going in that direction and I didn’t feel comfortable with it. And I can’t wholeheartedly choose this path with what I’ve got going on snow.”
With another Winter Games on the horizon White wanted to see whether or not he still had the juice. He decided that he did, as long as he didn’t pretend that he still was 19.
He’d had knee surgery last summer and his back was bothering him. So his practices were prudent, limited to a ‘power hour. “I don’t really go for those crazy long days any more,” White said before the season. “I just show up.”
Just making the US team was an uncommon challenge. White tested positive for COVID over the holidays and had to pull out of a crucial World Cup event at Mammoth Mountain last month because of a balky ankle. So he headed for Switzerland for the final qualifier, made the podium and earned his spot. But he’d determined after a training run in Austria that the Olympics would cap his career.
“The mountain was closing down and no one was around and I was watching the sun go down and it just hit me,” White said. “I was like, ‘This is it, these are the signs.’ It was a sad and surreal moment but very joyous as well.”
He was the oldest man in the field and didn’t figure to make the podium, not against Hirano, Australia’s Scotty James, the three-time former world champion and Japan’s Yuto Totsuka, the reigning global titlist.
As it was White was happy to make the final after falling in his first qualifying run. “I had to fight for it,” he said. “I had to work for it. And that’s been this entire season. Me just grinding it out.”
So he was sanguine about his prospects while riding the chairlift to the start. “Whatever happens, happens,” White figured. Going into the final run he was in fourth but his legs couldn’t hold and he went down.
”It’s hard for me not to get hung up on that last run,” said White “I wanted it so badly.”
The way White viewed it these were a bonus Games for him, a chance to bid farewell to the sport he had defined and then to move on. “So much to do, so much to live for,” he said. “This is just the beginning for me.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.