Shaun White is already the biggest name in snowboarding, and now he's aiming to raise the bar even higher
The kid who won Olympic gold at just 19 and spawned a whole new level of hero worship
Tuesday 01 December 2009
It isn’t hard to pick Shaun White out from the small coterie of pro-snowboarders being ushered through the entrance of Burton’s flagship SoHo outlet in New York. While the others, all branded hoodies, oversized jeans and retro sneakers, are ushered quietly to a table at the back of the store to take their places for a signing session, White’s entrance is a little less low-key, a little more Hollywood.
Lit by the acid glare of two lighting crews and framed by the curious backward shuffle of three cameramen, White, in black skinny jeans, blazer and crisp white shirt, is immediately set upon by a trio of willowy PR girls. Clipboards are produced, names checked, photographers herded towards the side of the signing area as space is made beside White’s end of the line spot for CBS, NBC and the other TV channels here to grab some time with the man who is arguably snowboarding’s biggest star.
White, for his part, is oblivious. He slips into his seat beside fellow pros Mads Jonsson and Kelly Clark and after taking a careful, and eventually approving, look at the image of himself on the stack of posters in front of him, he looks up at the first kid to walk the line and smiles. The camera lights immediately flare again, lenses zooming in on the blushing kid, who thrusts a freshly purchased DVD under White’s nose.
“You’re my idol, man,” the kid blurts, whatever opening gambit he’d carefully rehearsed deserting him.
“Thanks,” says White with another smile, “and your name is…?”
The line keeps moving, each one grabbing as much time as possible with White, each relating anecdotes of the first time they saw White or the last time they met. A middle-aged dad tries to sneak back into the White end of the line for a third time, a kid-sized board tucked under his arm for signing. Security gently admonishes him to give some other kids a chance and he’s urged to go back to the start of the queue. Argentinian Alex Ruiz emerges from the scrum of camera crews and photographers clutching a faded pennant emblazoned with White’s name and now with a newly minted autograph.
“He’s incredible,” he grins. “He’s achieved so much in such a short time. I don’t know what it is about him… he’s a very inspiring dude.”
In the midst of it all White keeps smiling, keeps signing. It is what it is.
It’s different to how it used to be, different even from a few short years ago. Then, White was still a star, though in a comparatively small firmament. Four years ago, at the Turin Olympics, that all changed. While the major TV networks were following established flag-bearers such as skier Bode Miller, White suddenly exploded into public consciousness, an almost flawless final half-pipe run landing him gold at age 19.
The crossover was immediate. While his contemporaries continued to channel the sport’s core sponsors into career success, White became an overnight industry, trading niche overachievement for mainstream sports superstardom, his image used to launch clothing lines for US superstore Target, his face fronting campaigns for American Express and Hewlett Packard and his signature splattered across the covers of posters, books, DVDs, video games.
Where once White was ‘The Flying Tomato’, a preternaturally gifted but slightly goofy flame-haired kid new to the tour and marking his territory, he’s now snowboarding’s elder statesman. At just 23, White carries the image of his sport on his shoulders. He’s spokesman, champion, poster boy and, for everyone competing against him, a very visible target.
It’s a position he understands. “It’s a cool situation to be in,” he acknowledges. “I’m no longer the underdog guy. Now I have the pressure of people expecting me to do things, expecting me to be the best. It does push you to go further, to really be that guy.
“If everyone’s betting on me to do well there has to be a reason, they must believe in me and you can’t back down from that,” he says.
“Which, I suppose, is why the Silverton thing came about.”
There isn’t much to Silverton at least during the summer. There’s fishing, good hiking, mountain bike trails. You can ride the narrow-gauge railway of this old mining village to nearby Durango if you’re of a mind. In fact, on the surface, there isn’t much to Silverton in the winter either, unless you know what you’re looking for. When White came here in April, he knew exactly what he was looking for – reinvention.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt that I’ve levelled off, I’ve always felt there was more to come,” he says, thinking for a moment about his motivations for a simple idea that eventually came to be known as Red Bull Project X.
“I’m winging it in a sense. I feel like I’ve got… I dunno, maybe I’ve just got more confidence in how I’m winging it. I have more accuracy in how I do it, now I’m calculating how I wing it.”
The gut instinct and the urge to move forward is what led White to Silverton. A vague idea to head to this tiny, pristine backcountry Colorado ski area to shoot some film was transformed when Red Bull approached White with a different plan – a private half-pipe, a place to work on something new and, to assist in that, a foam pit, constructed at the end of the pipe into which White could safely dump all the ideas that had been fizzing in his mind for months.
For the company, it was a massive commitment, both financially and philosophically. While never risk averse in pushing the boundaries of sporting extremes, the idea of effectively constructing a 3000m-high backyard playpen for a single member of its athlete’s club, akin to being asked by a racing driver for a private racetrack, was emblematic of both White’s status as an elite sports star and also his sport’s transition from teenage rampage to billion-dollar industry. The Snowsport Industry of America’s participation statistics showing that in 2004 half a million more snowsport visits were by snowboarders than skiers at US resorts. The figure has fluctuated since as improved ski design has given the sport back cachet, but with upwards of 6 million boarders now riding US slopes, investing in White was an irresistible urge.
But not an easy desire to sate. Silverton, while not exactly remote, is no Vail or Aspen. Access to the single chairlift, deep powder area is tricky.
“There’s nowhere else in north America like it,” explains Aaron Brill, the man who developed the snowboard-specific mountain nine years ago. “It’s all expert powder. We restrict the number of riders on any given day. On a busy day here we’ll have 80 riders, Vail which might have 8000. It’s designed for people who love to ride. There’s no easy way down.”
And no easy way in either. After weeks of heli-bombing the mountain with 11kg charges to flood the area chosen for the half-pipe with avalanche debris, pipe specialists Snow Park Technologies began the onerous task of shaping what would become White’s proving ground.
“It was a big ask,” says Snow Park Technologies’ Corley Howard. “It took six or seven days to build, with three CATs running 12-, 14-, maybe 16-hour shifts.”
And then came the foam pit, to be erected at the bottom end of the pipe, a 30ft (9m) long, 20ft (6m) wide cushion into which White could pour his creativity.
“The pit itself was 8000lbs (3.6 tonnes) of steel,” adds Snowpark boss Frank Wells. “The ski area is seven miles from town, so in the end, after the build, we had to drag it up there on a loader with skids, during a snowstorm. It was the only way.”
Until Project X, foam pits had been the preserve of skateboarding and motocross, a soft-landing incubator for new tricks, a risk-free testbed. In snowboarding, it had never been tried.
“The benefits were huge,” admits White. “Normally if you go to somewhere like Park City (Utah) in the half-pipe there, the sun hits one wall in the morning and the other wall in the evening, and if I want to learn a trick on one wall, when it’s not all icy and pretty gnarly, I have to wait until a particular time of day, but by that time of day every member of the public has been through there. And it’s snow; it’s not concrete or wood. It’s snow, it melts and changes and it becomes sloppy and you can’t even ride the thing.
“That was an amazing thing to not have to contend with. I could go ‘Wow, I’m just going to take my time today and hang out until one o’clock when I want to hit the wall,’ and then I could just go out and do what I wanted to do.”
If there’s been one criticism levelled at the prodigy in the past it’s been a lack of invention, his ability to seamlessly link existing tricks into runs that make judges sit up and take note.
“I think some people have questioned whether Shaun has been an innovator in his career up to now,” admits US Olympic snowboard coach Bud Keene. “He certainly has done everything that anyone has ever done way better and bigger than anyone, and in that way he has pushed the sport. But an innovator? Not up until now. Now he is. The things he’s doing now are definitely pushing the sport further and faster that it’s ever been pushed… and it looks awesome.”
It’s an analysis White, surprisingly, concurs with. “I definitely feel that. There’s four different ways of spinning in snowboarding, the regular way, the back side way and then switch regular and back, which are kind of like hitting lefty if your right-handed. I remember putting those all together into one run and it was like, ‘Wow we can’t believe he put all that in one run’, but those had all been done before.
“Really, I was just very good at taking all those tricks and mastering them, putting my own stamp on them sure, but they had been done. My talent I guess was being able to nail them, put them together in a run and land them all the time and not make mistakes.”
In Silverton, for the first time White would go further, attempting to push not just his own boundaries, but those of the sport.
“I remember attempting these tricks and the first ones were just hideous, terrible! I had it in my mind that I would do a full flip and then rotate this way or that and then add something else and I was just completely wrong. It was just awful.
“So I had to completely redo all the rotations and figure out how they worked. I had a wish list in my mind of the kind of tricks I wanted to do, just wondering what if? What if I kept flipping, what if I added another element. And then you start thinking, well, is there a way to land it?
“That was the luxury of the foam pit, because you would never try it otherwise, you would just beyond hurt yourself.”
After the high tech of the pit build, the crucial element ended up being the lowest tech of all – a thin line of plastic tape stretched across the middle of the foam. “If I was on the other side I was in. But then the question was ‘how far in?’ because you don’t want to go too far, that’s dangerous. But with this I could know every time if I was in that ‘money’ zone.”
The money shots arrived quicker than expected, despite the fear of taking the tricks out of the relative comfort zone of the pit and onto the half-pipe for real.
“Man, I was terrified,” he admits. “It could have been all over. All it would have taken was for me to throw the trick and panic halfway through it. I would have severely hurt myself. I know from past experience of learning tricks that you have to commit yourself totally or it will be bad.
“The first one I went for it was ‘flip, flip’ and I hit my butt and I was so relieved, just sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, man, it worked, I got out of it unscathed’. That gave me so much confidence. I knew it was going to work. It just snowballed after that – a trick a day.”
White stands up now, demonstrating the rotations, rattling out the names of the new moves and then pauses, frowning slightly. “You know, this is definitely the first time I’ve taken the initiative to learn something totally new and it feels great. Forever, I’ll be the first one to do these tricks.
“I can’t describe how it felt the first time I landed the front-side double-cork 1080,” he says. “I’d done it, I’d invented a new trick and I was sitting there just shaking. I knew right then it was something special. I was so excited.”
So much so that a couple couldn’t wait to be debuted. In August, White took his new creations to the New Zealand Open, blitzing the finals with revolutionary back-to-back double-cork 1080s and stringing together a run described by the event organisers as some of “best and most progressive riding ever witnessed”.
On the cusp of another tilt at Olympic gold, it’s exactly where White wants to be. “I really had to psych myself up to attempt these things. I’d hold my breath and try it, but now it’s just something that just feels part of my run. I think that maybe that’s the difference between me and other guys. I don’t just want to do the trick; I want to have it as mine. I don’t feel comfortable just saying I can do the trick, I want to own it. Having that going to the Olympics is a great feeling.”
White went to his first Olympics as a nascent star and emerged a commodity, traded into something possibly greater than the sport he arguably now defines. With that comes the pressure to repeat the feat. The secrecy surrounding his Silverton experiments has only served to balloon that expectation. He, though, is unmoved by the weight of expectation.
“If there’s an increase in pressure now, it’s fine,” he insists. “To be honest, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in that same position. I don’t ever remember being at a competition and not being one the guys to beat, so I don’t feel that there’s more of burden now. It’s good for me to feel that too, always feeling that I’m a threat to the competition and if not the guy, then certainly one of the guys to watch out for.”
In the end, what White was doing was returning to the core of who he is as a sportsman and that has given him a platform he never thought possible.
“So many people do this and lose sight of what it was that put them in that position,” he insists. “I don’t think I’m the kind of the person to take my eye of the ball, the real prize. It is such a beautiful thing to go back to that. I’m a snowboarder, that’s what I do. It was fantastic that the original thing that brought me here was the thing that underwent the most dramatic change, to actually go back to the reason why all this is happening to me. Because I’m good at this sport. I do this on a level that very few other people can do it at. “Now I sit back and think: ‘Hmmm, you know if I had that foam pit again… knowing what I know now, then this what I’d really like to do...’”
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