Shaun White didn’t start working out until after he competed in three Olympics, winning two gold medals in snowboarding. Thirty-one-year-old White, a prodigy who earned his first sponsorship at age 7, never relied on being the biggest or the strongest. Instead, his mental game allowed him to shine.
But failing to medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia put White’s mental toughness to the test.
“I had only been the Olympics and won, so you have to imagine, coming home from the Olympics having lost… It’s rough,” White said to a packed house at the Hogg Auditorium on the campus of the University of Texas. The date was April 9, 2018, and White doing an event for the Texas Cowboys, moderated by the Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation’s own Daron Roberts.
— Shaun White (@shaunwhite) April 10, 2018
Perched atop the halfpipe in Russia, White felt to his core that he wasn’t going to win. Four years later in Pyeongchang, South Korea, however, despite a strong challenge from Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, White knew before he even landed the first jump of his second run that the gold medal was his.
So what changed? Well, first, he did actually start working out, but that only accounted for a fraction of his improvement. More importantly, he addressed the things that lingered in the back of his consciousness, keeping him from achieving on the board.
“After Sochi, it wasn’t like a physical thing I had to go through,” White said. “I felt physically fit enough to have won that competition, it was that my mindset wasn’t there. It’s a lot easier to go home and do a bunch of sit ups. It’s a lot harder to fix your mental issues of how you’re feeling and the unmotivation that led to this point.”
White returned home from Sochi and started making changes. He had missed his friends and felt like he was missing out on a lot while he was competing, so all he did was visit with friends. He had always wanted to play in a band, so he started one and even went on tour. He also brought in a whole new staff: new manager, new agent, new assistant.
“The old system wasn’t working,” he said. “Every little thing added up to this big thing, so as I chipped away at it, I finally found myself genuinely just happier.”
— Shaun White (@shaunwhite) February 14, 2018
Leading up to the Pyeongchang Olympics, White also had to recover from a devastating crash in New Zealand that left him with 62 stitches in his face after slamming it into the top of the halfpipe.
The stitches healed his face, but it was up to White to banish the fear of getting back on the board, and especially his fear of that trick–the 1440. If he was going to do it again, he had to accept the risk of suffering the same injury, or worse.
“Honestly that was one of the biggest decisions in my life because I’m looking in the mirror and I can like barely recognize myself,” White said. “Stepping back out on the snow isn’t necessarily saying that this is going to happen to me again, but there is a chance, and I have to be willing to accept that.”
He did the 1440 for the first time after the injury while training in Colorado. To downplay the gravitas of the moment and take some of the pressure off, he told his coach he didn’t need the trick and he was never going to do it again in his entire career, right before he did it.
In the four years since his fourth-place finish in Sochi, @shaunwhite has gained a balance and perspective that has rekindled his love of snowboarding and sustained him through the grueling road back to the Olympics. https://t.co/ZGjw6aLlCi
— Rachel Axon (@RachelAxon) January 25, 2018
Afterwards, White went up to his coach and said, “Did you know I was going to do it?”
“He’s like, ‘Oh yeah.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean? How did you know?’” White recalled. Evidently, before he dropped in, White’s hand, propped on his coaches shoulder was trembling violently.
In the ultimate moment of redemption, that trick–in fact, that trick twice, back to back–secured the gold medal for White in Korea. All the bumps and bruises along the way built up White’s warrior mentality so he wasn’t fazed when he had to perform his toughest trick in order to win.
“You have to make mistakes, White said, “and if you learn from them, then they’re not mistakes, it’s a part of you.”