On the wrong bus with Shaun White

The American snowboarder has launched half-pipe into a prime-time sport

Red, White and flying high

Photograph by Brian Howell

Everything about Shaun White, the American snowboarder and one-man mega­brand, is meticulously thought out and fine tuned. When he hurls himself into the air high above the 22-foot edges of a half-pipe course, each flip, spin and twist is the culmination of months of intense testing and training. White’s thriving business empire of video games, snowboard gear and clothing also demands acrobatic feats of marketing savvy to balance his sponsor-approved, squeaky-clean image with that of a guy who knows how to keep it real. In short, when it comes to White, very little is left to chance. So why is the dude sitting on the wrong bus just hours before his high-stakes Olympic competition?

It seems after navigating through the security perimeter that envelopes Cypress Mountain, White, 23, and the rest of the U.S. men’s half-pipe team have accidently boarded a media shuttle for the final leg to the venue. There’s no mistaking him, either. With his unruly mane of red hair, oversized teeth and wiry five-foot-eight frame—he’s been called “the flying tomato” but it’s a nickname he’s desperate to shake—White is by far the most recognizable athlete at the Vancouver Olympics. But if he’s at all nervous about his upcoming race, he doesn’t show it. He cranks the volume on his white iPhone, tapping it on his knee and filling the bus with a tune from the blues-rock band the Black Keys. Meanwhile the conversation is decidedly casual. “Somebody’s jamming the flute pretty hard on this song,” one of the Americans says. White seems almost giddy. “The half-pipe has gotten better and better every day,” he says to his teammates. “It should be great.”

When he gets off the media bus, everyone from volunteers to police officers have their cameras trained on him—most with strict marching orders from their kids to bring home a photo. That was the case with Greg Anderson, a teacher from Westport, Ont., who flew out to volunteer at the Games. As White got off the shuttle, Anderson snapped off a photo, then called his seven-year-old son’s school to give him the news. “The secretary put her phone up to the PA system and projected it into my son’s class that I got Shaun White’s photo for the kids at school,” he says. “I’ll be a hero.”

White’s performance last Wednesday didn’t disappoint. In fact, it was astounding. His very first trip down the pipe earned him a score of 45.8 out of 50. That alone would have been enough to secure him the gold, his second after the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. So for his final run, a victory lap, he could simply have come straight down the middle of the pipe and still claimed the top podium position. Instead, for his fans in the crowd and those watching around the world, he laid down a litany of gravity-defying tricks to earn a final score of 48.4. White isn’t just the most famous or richest athlete at these games— earning US$9 million a year, or roughly the same as a star NFL quarterback—he may also be one of the best.

Not all that long ago if you made a claim like that about a snowboarder, people would think you’d been smoking something. Since the sport first became part of the Olympic lineup in the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, it has carried some baggage. One of the first snowboard medallists that year, Canada’s Ross Rebagliati, had his gold medal stripped after testing positive for marijuana, though the IOC overturned its decision five days later. Even this year, in press conferences before the games, reporters asked snowboarders from the U.S. women’s team whether other athletes in the Olympic Village looked down on them. To, say, cross-country enthusiasts, a bunch of kids strapping cafeteria trays to their feet and barrelling down hills hardly qualified for a place under the five rings.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Vancouver. Shaun White took the sport of snowboarding, and the half-pipe in particular, and turned it on its head. In just the last year, White, a resident of Carlsbad, Calif., has transformed the event by pushing the limits of physics and the human body. As the announcers at the Cypress half-pipe event pointed out, many of the tricks boarders were wowing crowds with didn’t even exist until nine months ago. And many of them were invented by White himself.

All of that was on display in his Olympic victory lap. His run was packed with tricks like back-to-back double corks—three horizontal rotations and two vertical rotations at the same time, something White later said fewer than half a dozen snowboarders in the world are capable of. Then, as he neared the bottom of the pipe, he propelled himself into the air for his most daring signature move, known either as the Double McTwist 1260, or simply the Tomahawk. Whatever the name, it’s an unbelievably dangerous manoeuvre that involves spinning numerous times in the air while also somersaulting and then effectively landing blind. When White performed it at last month’s Winter X Games competition in Aspen, Col., he suffered a brutal crash during a training run, though he came back to claim first place. “I can’t stand that thing, it’s my friend and my enemy,” he said after his successful run on Cypress. “I definitely felt like a righteous victory lap was in order, something needed to be done.”

White’s breezy manner belies the intensity of the training he’s put himself through over the years. Riding snowboards since the age of six, he was winning medals by the time he was 12. At 15, he teamed up with snowboard manufacturer Burton for his first major corporate sponsorship deal. Others quickly followed, with a clothing line at Target, a self-titled snowboarding video game, and corporate endorsement agreements with Oakley and Hewlett-Packard. Aside from making him wildly wealthy, that money and support has also enabled him to devote untold hours to training and dreaming up new tricks. Early last year, another sponsor, Red Bull, built a top-secret training facility for White high up in Colorado’s rugged back country. White has boasted that having the US$500,000 private course lets him pack years of training into a single day. After White’s Olympic victory in Vancouver, U.S. President Barack Obama said the boarder’s personal half-pipe paid off. “Not bad to have Obama talking about you,” White told Access Hollywood. “The day gets better.”

Red, White and flying highHis competitors don’t seem the least bit jealous. “Shaun is fantastic for the sport,” said Canadian snowboarder Brad Martin after his own run at Cypress, in which he failed to qualify for the semifinals. “He’s done a lot for snowboarding and half-pipe in particular. He’s brought mainstream media attention to it, bigger than it has been ever before.” Well, maybe he’s jealous about one thing. “It would be great to have my own private halfpipe,” added Martin.

Not only has White done great things for the sport of snowboarding, he’s the key to the Olympics gaining traction with younger viewers. For those in the coveted 18-34 age demographic, cross-country skiing and traditional long-track speed skating simply can’t compete for their attention. The ratings say it all. For the first time since American Idol came to air, it was knocked out of first place by Olympic coverage on the evening of White’s stellar performance. NBC drew 30.1 million people versus 18.4 million for Idol, according to Nielsen Co. (It helped that both Lindsey Vonn in downhill skiing and Shani Davis in speed skating also took gold that day, giving America six medals in the span of a few hours.)

“There was a time when the younger crowd were saying the Olympics are so straight and boring, it’s all about the X Games,” says Dominick Gauthier, the coach of Canadian freestyle medal winners Alexandre Bilodeau and Jennifer Heil. “But you ask Shaun White which gold medal changed his life the most, and he’s going to tell you it was Torino in 2006. Having a guy like that, saying things like that, gives so much more credibility to the Olympic movement for people of a younger age. The reason White drives two Lamborghinis is because of the Olympics.”

Even before White’s latest victory, his superstar status was on full display at Cypress. He was the only athlete to require a police escort as he made his way to the chairlift, lest his fans mob him. And his wild ride is only going to get crazier with his second Olympic gold. The night after his victory he barely had time to down a cheeseburger and celebrate with friends before he had to trek up to the NBC broadcast centre on Grouse Mountain at 2 a.m. for an appearance on the Today Show. Immediately after picking up his gold medal at BC Place, he boarded a plane for Chicago for an appearance on Oprah. Before leaving, he told Maclean’s he’s had no time to brace for what’s to come. “Four years ago I was basically a kid and didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “I couldn’t even walk around the street, go to the grocery store without being recognized. I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like to go anywhere now.”

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