Let’s play a game. Who’s the first person who comes to mind when we say professional skateboarder? Likely, Tony Hawk. Now, who pops into your head when we say professional snowboarder? Ding, ding, ding. Survey says: Shaun White.
If you went two for two, you understand both men are living legends who helped their sports gain mainstream acceptance and who’ve won multiple gold medals (Hawk’s are all from the X Games, but it’s not his fault the Olympic Committee waited until 2021 to recognize skateboarding).
On this week’s episode of the “Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast,” White joins us to discuss his incredible journey from snowboarding phenom to the focus of a major documentary. This article looks at White’s accomplishments and what it took for a child from Southern California, who underwent two open-heart surgeries before his first birthday, to leave an unmistakable mark on snowboarding.
Learning from a legend
In the mid-90s, Southern California was at the forefront of skateboard counterculture. Like many kids in the area, White picked up a board and hit the skatepark. Those in the community quickly noticed that the 9-year-old was talented, including superstar Tony Hawk who soon began mentoring him.
“From a young age, I realized I had a talent for eyeballing speed and distance,” says White. After seven years with Hawk, the 16-year-old turned pro. “I’ve been snowboarding for ages, but I’m also a professional skateboarder, which isn’t as well-known because of the shadow cast by the Winter Olympics,” he adds.
Some of the most valuable lessons White learned from Hawk were less about skateboarding and more about life. “He was blowing up…and [it was helpful] to see how he interacted with fans and balanced his life,” says White. “It was amazing to be in his sphere at that time,” he adds.
At birth, White was diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect that, while repairable, still carries the risk of a significant cardiac event. After two open-heart surgeries as an infant, White’s athletic success was improbable. Still, this didn’t impact his dreams.
“I wanted to be a pro snowboarder since I was a kid,” White recounts.
While skateboarding was exciting, competing at that level wasn’t new. White had already been a professional snowboarder for three years, a journey that began at 6 years old. As an amateur, White dominated the snowboarding circuit for seven years and earned five national titles before fulfilling his childhood dream of turning pro.
Although he looked forward to that moment his entire life, the transition was far from seamless. “Competing at such an early age, I remember my knees shaking [and] being incredibly nervous,” reveals White. He says that he also had difficulty building credibility. “Many considered me the future of the sport [but] I wanted to be taken seriously right away. My height [and] size were keeping that from happening.”
White competed in the Winter X Games shortly after turning pro in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2003 that he started winning titles.
“I got a little bigger and had one or two first place [finishes], which was huge,” says White. “I broke the seal and [saw] it was possible. It just clicked that year,” he adds.
From 2003 to 2013, he won 13 X Games gold medals in snowboarding (eight in superpipe and five in slopestyle) and another two gold medals in skateboarding. At 19 years old, White swept all five Grand Prix half-pipe events, which qualified him for the 2006 Winter Olympics. That was the beginning of his Olympic career, which included five Olympic appearances and three gold medals.
In 2017, disaster struck when White misjudged a trick while training for the Olympics in New Zealand. He was coming out of a double backflip when his board clipped the top of the half-pipe. His body buckled, and his head hit the wall’s upper edge, then he fell more than 22 feet. “My lip was busted open, and my nose split through the stem; I cut through my forehead and bit through my tongue,” says White.
At a crossroads, White’s relied on introspective reflection to guide him through the difficult time. “That was a defining moment in my life [because] my heart was saying that this happened for a reason. I needed to make a firm decision,” says White. “I decided to push forward [which] cleared [any] doubt I had going into that Olympic run,” he adds. Four months after undergoing several surgeries and receiving 62 stitches, snowboarding’s most prominent star not only competed in the Games. He took home gold.
Pulling back the curtain
The public has long been fascinated with extraordinary people, and documentaries give them an inside look at what life is like for these individuals. The award-winning docuseries The Last Dance tells the story of basketball great Michael Jordan. The creative team behind it worked hard to approach his story honestly and objectively, even when that meant showing the retired NBA superstar in a less-than-flattering light.
Like many great athletes, White has lived an extraordinary life. That’s why those behind The Last Dance are producing a documentary about him. Soon, we’ll get an inside look at his career and find out what he thought and felt during the highs and lows. “My life story isn’t something I’ve told [before], but I want to pull the curtain back…because it’s not what you’d [expect],” says White.
Whether following his dreams at 6 or coming back from an accident at 31, White understands that success is about taking risks and managing fear. “I feel like everything I’ve done has [been] a calculated risk,” says White. “Fear is something I’ve learned to manage,” he adds. While snowboarding certainly involves risk, the vulnerability required to share your story with the world is far riskier. Then again, if the lesser risk led to Olympic gold, imagine what the other brings.
The Talking Series is a weekly segment that delves deeper into topics discussed by guests on the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast.