Going for Gold
By Mark Dreyer
Shaun White is not just the most well-known US snowboarder of his generation, he’s among the most famous Winter Olympians of all time. With three Olympic gold medals won across a 12-year span, plus another 13 Winter X Games titles, White is coming to Beijing in search of the perfect swansong to a stunning career. He spoke to the AmCham China Quarterly in the final run-up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Shaun White has changed. He’s no longer the raucous, rock ’n’ roll caricature of years past, with his shaggy red hair and open-chested shirts. The famous locks are long gone, in favor of a more mature, polished look, and he’s declared publicly that the 2022 Beijing Olympics – his fifth Winter Games – will be his last. Post-Olympics, he already has his eyes set firmly on the next chapter of his life. That includes his own clothing and snowboarding brand, as well as a plethora of other potential commercial opportunities. But don’t let the new image fool you: White still means business on the slopes – and he’s coming to Beijing to win.
White’s career has been one for the ages. After turning professional aged just 13, he claimed his first pro win two years later, though narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City at around the same time. A year later, 16-year-old White won the majority of the events he entered, and he became the youngest snowboarder to win the US Open. 2003 was also the year he won his first Winter X Games title, setting up an X Games career in which he won 13 gold medals in snowboarding and added another two in skateboarding. But if his X Games results took him to the top of the extreme sports pyramid, it was White’s Olympic success that truly cemented him in the mainstream consciousness. To date, he has won halfpipe gold medals in Torino in 2006, Vancouver in 2010, and Pyeongchang in 2018. Even when finishing just off the podium in fourth in Sochi in 2014, White was still the most talked about athlete of the Games on social media.
“Winning my first gold medal in 2006 was obviously so special to me,” White says. “Winning a medal or an award for the first time is always special, and something you never forget, but I think the one moment that really stands out for me the most, thus far, was winning the gold in Pyeongchang in 2018. That has been such a highlight in my life. I had never gotten so emotional after a win. My whole family was there and a lot of my friends were able to see me compete. To win with that particular run, with that particular trick that put me in the hospital just a couple months earlier, was crazy. I had never done that run before, but I had to do it to win those Olympics. Looking back, I think that was my shining moment in my career, maybe even my legacy.”
The hospital visit to which he referred came after a crash when he was training in New Zealand at the end of 2017. White needed 62 stitches in his face, but was able to recover in time. His winning run in Pyeongchang earned a score of 97.75 (out of 100), the highest in Olympic history. “I knew I did a great ride, and I was proud of that, and I could walk away with my head high,” White said at the time. “But when they announced my score and I’d won, it crippled me. I was so overwhelmed with happiness, I’ve been through so much to get here.” Fittingly, his gold medal was also the 100th overall for the United States team at the Winter Olympic Games.
If Pyeongchang was dramatic, repeating the feat in Beijing would be scarcely believable. White is now 35 and the waves of new competitors keep on coming. Some have even predicted a trio of young Japanese riders could sweep the podium. It’s no longer the case that White simply has to turn up to win gold. But, more than any of his competitors, he has a knack of producing the goods when everything is on the line. “When I look back at my career, what has always defined me are the pressure situations and rising to the occasion,” he says. “I can’t imagine another moment in my career that had that much pressure on it than that one [in Pyeongchang]. To succeed was just everything.”
Last year’s Winter X Games were scheduled for Chongli in China, but, like so many other events, fell victim to COVID-19. However, White has previously been to China several times with his Air + Style series, an event that seeks to combine snowboarding, music and winter sports culture. “I remember the first Air + Style in Beijing like it was yesterday,” he says. “It was 2010, the first time the festival was held in China, so I knew it could bring a big crowd, but I never imagined how big. That was the first time a snowboarding competition of that level took place there, and it was also the first time I put my name on an event, so that one was definitely the most memorable for me. To see the snowboarding industry enter the Chinese market with a massive event like Air + Style was incredible, and, at the time, confirmed just how big the sport was going to be there one day.”
That happened a full five years before Beijing secured the rights to host the 2022 Olympics, but already proved that China’s passion for winter sports existed. White says he’s noticed a significant change in attitude towards winter sports in the country. “I think there has been a huge rise in winter sports in China in recent years,” White says. “I think any athlete will say that getting to bring the sport they’re so passionate about into a new market is always fun. What’s exciting is that I’m seeing all action sports – especially skateboarding – growing from when I first came over. Being a competitive skateboarder for more than half my career, it’s incredible to see so many young people finding passion in the same sports as me.”
While White has personally witnessed the growth in China’s winter sports market over the years, he’s also had the chance to travel and compete all over the world. With previous Winter Olympic Games held in Japan and South Korea, there are already some more developed winter sports markets in Asia, against which China can benchmark itself. From White’s perspective, he has been able to judge that growth not just by the size of the market and the passion of the amateur enthusiasts, but by the quality of the professional athletes, too.
“The ski and snowboarding market in China is still relatively young,” he says, “and if you look at the stats, you can see how quickly they’ve gained in popularity. At the 2018 Games, a Chinese snowboarder, Liu Jiayu, even came in second place [in the women’s halfpipe]. So, I’m hoping the excitement around these Beijing Olympics will bring out even more beginners, who are interested in picking up skiing and snowboarding, and pave the way for the market to become even stronger. Some of the top snowboarders in the world are from Japan, and I don’t see why there couldn’t be bigger Chinese riders to come in the future.”
“What’s so wonderful about the Olympics being in China,” White adds, “is that these winter sports have had this slow growth, but I think with the Olympics coming, and everyone around the world tuning in to watch, these sports are really going to explode there.”
Staying On Brand
White signed his first sponsorship deal at the age of just seven, and his name has been synonymous with the likes of Red Bull and Burton for years. But these days, he’s more focused on developing his own brand. White says he focuses on staying true to both his sports and his personality, emphasizing that working with brand partners, creative agencies, and product development teams is essential in overseas markets including China to ensure there is authenticity among both eastern and western cultures. He recently added natural energy drink brand Celsius to his stable of brands, and is also an ambassador for official Olympic sponsor, Omega, and US Olympic team outfitter, Ralph Lauren.
Outside of his current partnerships, though, he admits he’s exploring the idea of licensing deals in China, given that both snowboarding and skateboarding are seeing exponential growth. “Creating ideas and licensing my name with brands that are truly committed to these spaces would be something I would love to tackle one day soon,” he says, before joking, “but if you have some contacts or ideas, call me! I’d always love to do more in China!”
Much of the build-up to these Olympic Games has focused on the challenges athletes will face and White admits that he and his US Olympic teammates are still waiting for specifics in terms of international travel and onsite training to be confirmed, acknowledging that everything is changing day-to-day, given the current state of the pandemic. But, once he arrives, he says he’s determined to enjoy the experience: “I’m very much looking forward to the Opening Ceremony in Beijing. There are such colorful, beautiful, and exciting things about the Chinese culture, and I’m sure they will do a great job of incorporating it into many ways at the Games. I’m most looking forward to my last Olympics, and soaking in every moment I have there.”
Qualifying events for the US Olympic snowboarding team continue into January and White’s place won’t be officially confirmed until just weeks before the Opening Ceremony, although it is widely assumed he will be given a discretionary place on the squad if he hasn’t already qualified by right. Beijing may be his fifth and final Games, but, whatever happens over the next few months, he says he’s stepping away with no regrets.
“I’m so happy with everything I have achieved in my career, and I have this good feeling that it’s time to end after these Games,” he says. “Every time I’ve gone for the Olympics, the feeling has been so different each and every time. But knowing that these will be my last ones has been special. I’m really enjoying every little piece of it: the ups and downs, the traveling, the camaraderie with my team and the other athletes. There’s really this glow to it, and I’m taking in every moment. As for what’s next, I’m excited to see what it is,” White adds. “I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family, my friends, and getting to spend long stretches of time with them. But I do have a couple of exciting projects in the works, and I can’t wait to share them with the world.”
Rising US-China tensions have been an inescapable part of the geopolitical conversation over the past few years, and when asked to reflect on the potentially difficult situations into which athletes might be thrust in Beijing, White gives a considered answer. “You can’t just ignore what’s going on,” he says. “You want to be aware of what’s being said and where you’re at in the world. I am never one to comment on politics, and I will let those who are more qualified than I am speak on these issues. But I will say that the Olympics are probably the only event that brings every country and peoples from all walks of life together at the same moment and that is a very special thing. As an athlete, competing for your country, and wearing the stars and stripes, the proudest moments of my life have come when I’m hearing the national anthem while standing on the podium. To hopefully be able to do that one more time would be a dream come true.”