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Shaun White’s emotional, long last goodbye

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ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Shaun White was 45 minutes into an hour-plus-long stretch of interviews with every major media outlet on earth. At the base of the Olympic halfpipe, where he’d just finished fourth, he’d told the same stories, recited the same anecdotes, offered the same observations on his just-concluded career. And finally, it just got to be too much.

With a battery of cameras looming over him, White knelt on the snow. He put one hand on his black-and-white Whitespace board, one on the snow, closed his eyes and said “thank you, thank you,” over and over again.

One of the great runs in Olympic history — five Games, three golds — is over. The greatest career in snowboarding is over. And Shaun White is OK with it … mostly.

White stood back up, eyes rimmed with tears, and got back to answering question after question. He told the tale of his first snowboard (his mother brought it to school when it arrived in the mail at his home) and his thoughts on finishing fourth (“If I’d finished third, I would have wanted to finish second. If I’d finished second, I would have wanted to win”).

He connected with every single interviewer, every single question, giving each one so much time that his attendant constantly pulled him away to the next engagement. As long as he kept answering questions, he would keep the end a little farther away.

"A lot of emotions are hitting me right now,” he said. “The cheering from the crowd, some kind words from my fellow competitors at the bottom. I'm so happy.”

Shaun White of Team United States cries after finishing fourth in the Men's Snowboard Halfpipe at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. (Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Shaun White of Team United States cries after finishing fourth in the Men's Snowboard Halfpipe at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

What do you do when what you’ve always done is over? White has been wrestling with this question for months now, ever since he made the decision in November to retire after these Olympics. Every day at the Olympics has brought new “lasts” — last walk in the Opening Ceremony, last time in the athletes’ village, last time showing up on the morning of an event full of nerves, last time worrying about whether he’d score enough points to advance to the next round.

And last time dropping into the halfpipe. White posted a respectable 72.00 his first run, nothing special, but nothing catastrophic, either. The sun glinted off the pipe on the riders’ left, and the difference in air temperature caused trouble for several riders, future medalists Ayumu Hirano and Scotty James among them.

So when White dropped in for his second run, there was a bit of daylight there at the top of the leaderboard. And just for a moment, White looked like his old self, pulling off a frontside double cork 1440 — three diagonal rotations — and a brilliant Double McTwist, the move he’d created so many years ago. It was vintage, it was genuine, it was the high-water mark of a legendary career … and in 2022, it wasn’t quite enough to land him on the podium.

On his final run, White had one last opportunity to ride his way onto the podium. He just had to do better than his best. On his second trick, a cab double cork 1440, he wasn’t quite able to stick the landing, and slid onto his stomach.

“It was harsh to fall in that run and not just nail it and pop onto the podium there,” he said. “I was so close.”

His fate sealed, his future now at hand, White pulled off his helmet and goggles and slowly rode down the center of the halfpipe. There weren’t many fans in attendance at Genting Snow Park, but those who showed up cheered him all the way down.

“I love this sport so much,” he said. “Even the awful moments of sitting in a hospital room thinking what’s next, or coming so close to winning and feeling the agony of defeat.”

White is now part of snowboard’s past, as tough as that is to believe. Ayumu Hirano landed a triple cork — a trick White was never able to master — to win Olympic gold, and both Hirano and Scotty James are riding at a level so far above White right now that he couldn’t catch them even at his best.

“Everybody was asking me what my legacy in this sport has been, and I’m like, 'You’re watching it,” he said. “These younger riders, they’ve been on my heels every step of the way. To see them finally surpass me is, I think, deep down what I always wanted. To be beaten, to finally walk away without feeling like, ‘I could have done this...’”

Time comes for every athlete, some before they turn 20, some — as in White’s case — after they’ve been to five Olympics. He’s content to — well, he’s accepting the fact that he has to — cede the spotlight to Hirano, James and the next generation. He’ll still be a part of the sport — he made sure to plug Whitespace, whatever that ends up being, throughout his farewell press tour — but the sport known for its perpetual progression has at long last progressed past its GOAT.

“As sad as I am to say goodbye, I’m so relieved,” he said, his voice raw. “I won’t ever have to be at the top of the pipe stressed again, wondering, ‘Is this the day I might really hurt myself trying to push the envelope?’”

Nearby, Hirano was still conducting his gold medal interviews. On the massive hill above him, freestyle skiers were practicing their slopestyle runs. The winter sports world was moving on without Shaun White. But it’ll be a long time before anyone matches him.

Shaun White of the U.S. shows emotion after finishing fourth in the Men's Snowboard Halfpipe Final at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. White competed in five Winter Olympic Games and had announced Beijing 2022 will be the last one of his career. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Shaun White of the U.S. shows emotion after finishing fourth in the Men's Snowboard Halfpipe Final at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. White competed in five Winter Olympic Games and had announced Beijing 2022 will be the last one of his career. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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