ASPEN, Colo. – One by one, eight of the marquee athletes of the Winter X Games took their seats on a dais in a makeshift media center at the bottom of Buttermilk Mountain. Olympian Lindsey Jacobellis still had on her snowboard boots and goggles. So did U.S. teammate and fellow Olympian Gretchen Bleiler. Paralympic skier Tyler Walker held his racing helmet in his lap. All were dressed and ready to do their thing. Except one.
Shaun White strolled in wearing a pair of skinny black jeans, leather loafers, a black silk shirt with a silver medallion draped around his neck and a neatly fitting blue and green plaid sport coat. He looked no more like he belonged there, promoting ESPN's made-for-TV action sports event, than Gene Simmons would have in full makeup.
If ever the SAT folks were looking for one of those questions where they ask, "Which of the following is not like the others," this was it. But really, except for the whole action-sports thing, Shaun White isn't like his peers.
At a sponsor party later that evening, athletes like Louie Vito – a gold medalist contender in the men's superpipe, the main event of Winter X – walked around mostly unnoticed. Meanwhile, handlers escorted White in through a back door, kept him shuttered away from the masses until it was time for him to make two sponsor announcements – he unveiled a personalized pair of Oakley goggles and kicked off a learn-how-to-race campaign with BF Goodrich, deals that combined likely pay him in the seven-figure range – then ushered him out of the party before he could be accosted by a hoard of photo seekers.
Such is Shaun White's life, one he's afforded himself with by working to become the best snowboarder on the planet and one he's perpetuated with an insatiable appetite to do more. He says he's always fancied himself as more than just a snowboarder, more than just a skater, which he's really good at, too.
"I've always kept my options open to see what's out there for me," White said as music from the sponsor party raged in the background. "What an extraordinary situation to be in where I can sit down and go, 'What do I want to do?' "
Sunday night, White won his fourth straight X Games gold in superpipe. He entered as the heavy favorite despite only training a few days since his gold-medal performance in the Vancouver Olympics last February.
But there's potentially a bigger carrot dangling in front of White – double gold in 2014. Sometime this spring, the International Olympic Committee is expected to decide whether to make snowboard slopestyle – a competition that combines rail slides with big air – a medal sport. If they do, White wants in.
"To possibly compete in two events in the Olympics would be unreal," he said. "I've found that I can't really work up the motivation to do these tricks unless I'm put to the pressure, and what's better than the Olympics to give me the state of mind to, alright, I'm gonna be on this giant pedestal all of the sudden, everybody's gonna be watching these Olympics, everybody's gonna focus on what's gonna happen. … I just know that you're gonna wanna be prepared by the time you get there, and that's what pushes me to learn these things and be ready."
Right now, he's not.
White used to dominate slopestyle. He's won X Games gold five times, most recently in 2009. (Yes, we're counting X Game medals, but in the four years between Olympics, it's the most competitive thing going.) But in anticipation of the 2010 Olympics, White focused all his attention on halfpipe. As he did, the slopestyle competition passed him by. Without practicing even once in the last 20 months, White failed to qualify for Sunday's slopestyle final.
That he came up well short was hardly a surprise, especially to White. As he stood at the top of the course during Wednesday's practice session, he watched as rider after rider pulled off double cork after double cork – a move that involves three spins and two flips. White, who throws the trick regularly in the halfpipe, had never attempted the trick off a slopestyle jump, but knew he had to. He landed it on his third try. But one double cork in a run was hardly enough in a competition where Canada's Sebastien Toutant ripped off three in a row.
Admittedly, White has a lot of work to do between now and 2014. That he would even consider pulling the double in slopestyle competition is a testament to his confidence in the halfpipe, as slopestyle would cut heavily into his training.
His coach, Bud Keene, isn't worried, though. Since the Olympics 11 months ago, White practiced in a halfpipe exactly once – in Park City for a few days during the start of the Sundance Film Festival. He showed up to Aspen late – his plane from Los Angeles got delayed – missed the first two and a half days of practice, finally got to the pipe with 35 minutes left in the final practice session and promptly ripped off the best run of the day. Twenty-four hours later, he earned the highest score in the superpipe elimination round.
"He can basically show up off the plane, off the couch, show up late and look at the pipe, take one warm-up run, come back up and start throwing 'em down," Keene explained. "That means he doesn't have to devote as much attention, as much of himself, as much concentration to just doing that, and therefore he has more for other things."
It's the "other" things that have made White a target for resentment from some of his peers. They don't do Madison Avenue. He does. They live on the mountain. He lives in Hollywood. He owns a Lamborghini. They don't.
But there's a reason for all of it, none of which is White saying, "I'm better than you."
The endorsements free him from worrying about how to pay the bills, and thus allow him to focus on what's most important – being ready to compete. Living away from the mountain shields him from burning out. And the Lambo, well, he bought that because it's one of life's unobtainable luxuries.
"It was like, 'You can't have this,' so I wanted it," he explained.
Obtaining the unobtainable – that's the mission that separates White from the pack. You aren't supposed to be able to launch yourself into the air, flip twice and twist three and a half times. White did it and cruised to an Olympic gold medal because of it.
By the time the 2014 Winter Games roll around, he'll have come up with something bigger and better, because he knows he has to in order to win.
"He doesn't rest on his accolades," explained skateboard legend Tony Hawk, who's been a mentor to White. "He doesn't care how he rates. He continues to keep bettering himself, and that's where his longevity lies.
"Sometimes I think he gets ridiculed for it by maybe his peers, because he's not out partying or what not, but he gets that this is a career."
Because he's been competing on the professional level since 2000, it's hard to believe White is just 24. He's already accomplished so much – two Olympic gold medals, 11 in Winter X, a video game named after him, his own clothing line.
He's all over the place, yet it all ties together into one perfect theme – squeezing everything he can out of his one shot at life. If there are two Olympic golds out there for him in Sochi, he's going to go for both. If pulling off a double cork 1080 is what it takes to win, he'll give it a try. And when the snow melts, he hops on a skateboard and continues to ride.
"It's a tough question now, because things keep changing dramatically," he said when asked what he wants his legacy to be. "I would kind of like to be the guy where you look back and you're like, 'That guy didn't hold back at all. He really pursued the things that he loved, and most of the time, he pulled it.' "