Olympics 2022 -- At his fifth Games, Shaun White is still snowboarding's greatest competitor

Shaun White will drop into his fifth and final Olympics not favored to win gold for perhaps the first time in his career. But you'd be foolish to count him out. Marianna Massey/Getty Images

TWO DAYS AFTER Shaun White arrived in Beijing, he posted a photo of the Olympic halfpipe to his Instagram account. In the shot, White stands in front of the pipe, eyes narrowed in the direction of the camera. A black neck gaiter shields the rest of his face. He's dressed in his Team USA uniform and holding a black-and-white snowboard that bears his name.

On the surface, it is a mundane photo of a guy in snowboard gear standing in front of a big pile of snow. But with context, it is an image of finality, a shot of the sport's greatest competitor posing with his instrument in front of what will soon be his final stage. Because in the months leading up to this, his fifth Winter Olympics, White sidestepped action sports superstition and called "last run," revealing this would be his final attempt to add to his Olympic medal haul.

"I had my sights set on competing in Italy [in 2026]," White said in January, three days before officially qualifying for the Beijing Games. "I got pretty excited about the idea of finishing my Olympic career where I started it [in 2006]. But through this process, I realized I don't think I can do another four years, mentally or physically. This is going to be my last go."

After a few years away from snowboard contests and a failed run at qualifying for the 2020 Summer Olympics in skateboarding, White returned to the halfpipe in 2021 with clear goals and a fresh perspective. Each of the past four Winter Olympics has held different meaning for the 35-year-old, and his motivation for dropping into halfpipe contests has shifted over the years. Once he wrapped his mind around Beijing being the finish line for a career that has spanned 20 years and nearly as many hairstyles, he says this season and all its unexpected challenges, gained "a little extra shimmer."

For perhaps the first time in his Olympic career, White is not the favorite to win Friday morning in Beijing. In fact, few would be surprised if the three-time Olympic gold medalist finishes off the podium. But he is still the face of his sport in the U.S. and one of the most recognizable Winter Olympics athletes in the world. White has never been universally beloved, even before a sexual harassment case affected the way some people think of him. But fans who drop in on snowboarding once every four years will tune in and expect greatness out of the rider they called The Flying Tomato in Torino. And they should.

White might be older, competing on a bum ankle in a young man's sport, but he is also the shrewdest competitor halfpipe snowboarding has ever seen. He knows how to land a run when it matters and sell that run to the judges. White does not enter a halfpipe contest he doesn't believe he can win, and that is why over a two-decade career, his greatest asset has been his mind.

"I'm a competitor and I want to win," White said of his final Olympics. "I can't show up without that feeling, so it's still there. I am going in eyes open, ready for any outcome. But yeah, I'm hoping to win."

WHITE SHOWED UP at his first Olympics as a 19-year-old in Torino, Italy, with the same hope. After missing out on the 2002 team by one spot, he spent four years turning himself into the undisputed best halfpipe rider in the world. He won every contest in the lead-up to the 2006 Olympics, including the Winter X Games in halfpipe and slopestyle, and was the heavy favorite to win Olympic gold. Then he fell on his first of two qualifying runs and faced elimination before finals even began.

That's when Shaun White the competitor introduced himself to the world. A rider who is never better than after a loss or when his back is against the wall, White returned to the top of the pipe, dropped in and landed a run that shot him to the top of qualifying. In the finals, he landed huge back-to-back 1080s and back-to-back 900s to win his first Olympic gold. "That Olympics for me was about saying, 'here I am. I'm not just the name or the kid anymore,'" White said. "I've made it. My life changed forever after that."

White became the sport's first global superstar, appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone draped in an American flag and made more money that year than most of his competitors combined. A singular star in a sport comprising constellations of friends who claimed to ride for fun rather than for first place, White made no secret of his desire to dominate.

About a year and a half before the next Olympics, White said he felt progression in the halfpipe had stalled. He was still winning contests with largely the same run he landed in Torino, but he wanted to be known for more than just wins. He wanted to leave his stamp on the sport. Double corks -- tricks that require two off-axis flips in addition to spinning -- had become staples in slopestyle, and most riders believed it was just a matter of time before someone landed one in the halfpipe. White wanted to be that rider. But double corks were dangerous to learn.

So Red Bull built White a private halfpipe in Silverton, Colorado, that included the sport's first foam pit and required a helicopter to access. It was the kind of James Bond move that further distanced White from his competitors off the snow, as well as in the halfpipe.

In March 2009, White showed up in Silverton with a list of double corks he dreamed up and planned to learn. He landed the first double cork -- a frontside double cork 1080 -- on his third attempt. After landing two more double cork variations in the span of about two weeks -- and coming close on a fourth -- he set his sights on the double McTwist 1260, a trick that includes two flips and three-and-a-half rotations and could make him unbeatable that season.

"You know how I said that everyone assumes this is easy for me?" Shaun asked me one day in Silverton. "Well, I probably downplay the one easy part: I cut out a lot of prep time by visualizing complicated tricks."

Most snowboarders visualize skills before they attempt them on snow, to varying degrees of success. Some like to watch other riders attempt a trick first and analyze it hundreds of times before they try it themselves. But White is as good as anyone at figuring out the mechanics behind a new trick and then landing it over and over again in his mind before taking it to snow. "By the time I try it in the halfpipe, my body is just catching up with what my brain already knows how to do," White told me back then.

Whether it's snowboarding or guitar, White is also known for practicing the skills he is terrible at, something any athlete or musician knows takes a disciplined mind. And he works on the basics like a beginner, practicing skills like carving and edge control, which help him boost higher out of the halfpipe than most. Getting big air requires another mental tool White is known for having in spades: the ability to harness fear. He's also known for his ability to instill it in his competitors.

When word spread that White had landed the first double cork in Colorado, proving it was possible in a halfpipe, his competitors raced to catch up. When riders began throwing their double corks in contests in the lead-up to Vancouver, White let his competition know they'd need more than one. He landed two double cork variations back-to-back at a contest in August 2009 and then let the double McTwist 1260 out of the bag at an Olympic qualifier in December.

By the time he arrived in Vancouver, it was clear White wouldn't need the trick to win. The conditions at Cypress Mountain were warm and the halfpipe walls deteriorated throughout the day, which made big tricks that much tougher to land. But it was the most hyped skill in the sport's history, and White wanted to claim it in front of the world. He'd already won gold by the time he dropped in for his final run and, after celebrating with his coaches at the top of the halfpipe, he dropped in and threw a victory lap that included three double corks -- punctuated by the double McTwist 1260, a trick White named the Tomahawk. The run earned the highest score of the night.

"My second Olympics was all about cementing it in," White said. "Saying, 'Hey, it wasn't a fluke. This is my life's work.' I got to lay down the hammer and do some tricks that had never been done before and really show what I was capable of doing."

White once told me his favorite contest conditions are cold and windy because when the weather's bad or the halfpipe's icy, he has a distinct advantage. "I've already won," he said. The other riders are complaining, talking about calling off the event, focusing their minds on the wrong things. "We're all riding in the same halfpipe in the same conditions," he said. "It's the rider with the right mindset who wins that day."

WHITE WAS NEVER more right about the power of the mind than at the 2014 Sochi Games, where he attempted to split his focus and compete in halfpipe as well as the Olympic debut of slopestyle, an event he dominated early in his career. He said he'd win two gold medals in one Olympics, and NBC built its campaign around that claim.

But slopestyle riding had progressed beyond White's ability to catch up while keeping his skills sharp in the pipe and traveling as a guitar player and backup singer for his former band, Bad Things. When he arrived in Sochi to less than stellar conditions, White dropped from the slopestyle contest, citing dangerous course conditions, and went all-in on his attempt at a three-peat in the pipe. It was too late to replace him with the next U.S. rider in line.

During halfpipe finals, White fell on tricks he had landed during practice and finished fourth. He has called that night "the worst thing I could have imagined." He had the tricks. He had the experience. As usual, he had all the pressure, but this time, he buckled beneath it. "My mindset wasn't right," White said. "You could tell in my riding that I'd lost my way."

His experience up to that point had trained him to believe everything always works out in his favor. When it didn't, he was crushed and embarrassed. But he eventually realized the worst thing he could have imagined didn't erase his past successes or stop the world from moving around him. He had to decide how he would move forward, too.

"It's such a thing you're taught as an athlete, just get through it, grind through the hard times and the reward is waiting for you," White said. "You get caught in this cycle of delayed happiness. You always assume, 'If I can just get to this, everything will be great.' That mentality only works so many times.

"After that Olympics, I did a lot of soul searching and realized I did still love the sport, there were just a lot of things I had been putting off because I wanted to focus on the Olympics. And those things finally caught up to me ... relationships, things with my family and my managers. I brought the reins in on all of it. I started going to therapy and started working out for the first time. I got a new coach and found my way back to snowboarding. I fell in love with it again."

IN AN INTERVIEW sometime before the 2018 Olympics, White told me he didn't visualize himself on the podium in Pyeongchang. That would place too much weight on the contest itself. Instead, he tricked his mind into looking past the Olympics and focusing on a moment that required more creativity -- something lighthearted yet bold. He visualized the Olympic ring he would design after he won gold.

But doing so likely would mean attempting a trick that, four months before the Games, nearly killed him. While training in New Zealand in October 2017, White crashed attempting to learn a cab double cork 1440, or YOLO flip, and suffered gruesome injuries that required 62 stitches in his face and five days in intensive care. To win in Pyeongchang over top riders such as Australia's Scotty James and two-time Olympic silver medalist Ayumu Hirano of Japan, White knew he would need that trick.

When he found himself sitting in second place beyond Hirano, who had landed back-to-back 1440s in his first run, White decided it was time to face the trick. Standing at the top of the halfpipe, he says, the fear fell away. On his second run, White attempted back-to-back 14s -- a combo he'd never even tried in practice -- but fell on the YOLO flip. The attempt gave him confidence, though, that he could land it. With nothing to lose in his third and final run and, more importantly, everything to gain, White went for the combo again and rode away clean. "Before my last run, I was like, 'OK, I can live with second,'" White said. "But I realized at that moment, I didn't have to."

The judges awarded White, the last rider to drop in the contest, the top score of the night -- and his third Olympic gold.

"I found myself in this position that I love," White said that day, tears streaking his face. "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, 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."

The rest, he left up to the judges. And not everyone agreed. Some fans wanted to see Hirano's score hold up, believing he had landed the best run of the night. Others didn't view White as a guy worth cheering for. As he was dropping in to take his historic final run, stories about a 2016 sexual harassment lawsuit he settled with bandmate Lena Zawaideh in May 2017 were making the rounds on Twitter. According to the lawsuit, White had forced Zawaideh to watch sexually disturbing videos, sent her sexually explicit images, made vulgar sexual remarks to her and tried "to impose a strict regime" over her while she was with the band.

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."

A few hours later, White appeared on NBC's "Today" show and apologized for using the word "gossip" to describe the allegations and then issued a statement apologizing for his previous conduct. "I regret my behavior many years ago and am sorry that I made anyone -- particularly someone I considered a friend -- uncomfortable. I have grown and changed as a person, as we all grow and change, and am proud of who I am today."

After the Games, White dropped off the media radar. He didn't do the typical post-gold rounds on late-night TV or front the cover of Rolling Stone. Instead, he started skateboarding again with a focus on qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Games. He spoke to an auditorium of students at the University of Texas about motivation and recorded a podcast with speaker and author Tony Robbins.

That April, White was invited, along with Michael Phelps and Tom Brady, to speak at Robbins' Florida home. Listening to Phelps share his struggles in such an open forum shocked White, who had learned to compartmentalize his life and suppress his emotions. "I listened to Michael talk about his ups and downs, and he was so open and real about everything," White says. "I was fully taken back by that. There are so many things that are different about our career paths, but so many similarities with the pressure and the expectation. After hearing him talk, I got inspired to learn more about the feelings and troubles I'd faced. Mental health wasn't really talked about as much at that time."

Since then, White said he attended several of Robbins' multiday seminars and dug into working on his mental and emotional health. He even met his girlfriend, actress Nina Dobrev, at a Robbins seminar in Florida. "I never considered mental well-being as something I should work at," White says. "I think I've changed dramatically. I feel like night and day, a complete difference from that person I was in Pyeongchang in so many ways. A lot of it is acceptance and having patience and the ability to go into things with a healthy mindset."

White says this work helped him realize that he still had the mindset to compete with the best in the world and that he'd be selling himself short if he didn't take another run at the Winter Olympics. But this time, it's about the process, not the result.

"After the work on myself, I went, 'Wow, I have the opportunity to go again? That's incredible,'" White said. "Why not pursue that? Just to be an Olympian again after this many years is a feat in its own. From there, everything is a bonus. I'm excited about it. I never really talked like this before. It's nice to share and be open about it all."

When White faced challenges this season, he says his newfound mindset is what helped him push through. "This one has by far been the strangest and most challenging of all," he said.

Early in the season, White struggled to land contest runs, broke a binding during a run at the Dew Tour and tested positive for COVID-19 during the Christmas holiday. At the Mammoth Grand Prix in January, he struggled with breathing issues and a sore ankle and pulled out of finals. Not wanting to leave his fate up to a selection committee, he booked a last-minute flight to Switzerland to compete at a world cup in Laax, where he finished third and secured his spot in Beijing. While there, he shared his thoughts and experiences on social media, something else that's new for White, and announced he was starting his own snowboard gear brand, Whitespace, and would ride a board of his own creation in his final Olympics.

"Through all of that," he said, "with the mindset I've got now, it's not nearly as troubling as it would have been in the past. A lot of things haven't gone to plan, and that's fine. If you can get on that program of not letting your expectations run wild and deal with the current situation -- or change your expectations -- the ability to do that has been really calming and very helpful to me this time around." At 35, that might be just the mindset White needs to outperform expectations.

After the Laax event, White traveled to Copper Mountain to train for a few weeks before flying with the U.S. team to Beijing. He's been characteristically mum about what he learned while there, but in a year when it could take a triple cork to win, it's not a stretch to believe the trick is in his back pocket in Beijing. And if he decides, standing at the top of the halfpipe with one run to go and nothing to lose and everything to gain, that he still has something to prove to the world, that his legacy is as much about going for it as it is about landing a perfect run, there is no doubt White will put up a fight.

"I'm definitely setting my sights on some bigger tricks," White said in January. "I'm keeping my eye on what's going on [with other riders], so we'll see. I'm no stranger to the triple."

IN THE LEAD-UP to the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, White told me about a painting of Doors frontman Jim Morrison he passed each time he went into the studio to record tracks for his eponymous video games. He said seeing the painting -- seeing any image of Morrison, for that matter -- made him think about his own legacy.

To White, Morrison's face represented wild times and experimentation. "I've always thought if my face were on a wall someday, I'd want people to get the same vibe," White said. "I'd want them to see a guy who had dreams far beyond snowboarding, and who did everything he could to make them real."