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Shaun White Is Still More Snowboarder Than Celebrity

Over the past decade-plus, White has transformed from the Flying Tomato into the rare extreme-sports superstar. He keeps throwing it down, though—and will look to reclaim his spot atop the sport by winning a third Olympic gold medal in Pyeongchang.

Collage of Shaun White images Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Shaun White wanted to drop in last. In halfpipe, being the last athlete to make a run is a privilege, a strategic advantage. The top qualifier gets to watch the competition do its best in the final, and then knows exactly what score they need to win. Going last also comes with an ego boost.

Unfortunately for White, who had topped qualifying at each of his prior three Olympics appearances, he went into his second preliminary run on Tuesday morning in South Korea in third place. His mark of 93.25, an unmistakably high score, had been topped by both Australia’s Scotty James, who had earned a 96.75, and Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, who’d registered a 95.25.

The maximum score in halfpipe is 100, and, on a scale from zero to 100, there isn’t much room between 96.75 and 100. To best a score nearing perfection, White needed to be both cheekily ambitious in his plan and flawless in his execution. And, well, he was.

White flew off the top of the pipe like he’d been launched from a cannon. He found one doubtless landing after another. The reward for his double McTwist, 1260-filled run was a score of 98.50 and a spot at the back end of the finals. Shaun White, at 31, could still unhinge his jaw and devour everybody else on the mountain.

The Winter Olympics are singular in the way they draw audiences to events that they do not fully understand. Every four years, onlookers spend two weeks rediscovering sports about which they may have forgotten: athletes riding aerodynamically designed sleds through twisting tubes of ice; men and women in goggles and helmets soaring off monstrous jumps with their skis turned into a V; ice skaters gliding through programs aiming to land five quadruple jumps just two games after a man won a gold medal without landing one.

In the events that are scored by a panel of judges, it can be hard for casual viewers to know what differentiates good runs from great ones. If somebody does not keep up with figure skating in non-Olympic years, for example, it follows that this person might not be able to easily parse the difference between a solid routine and a medal-worthy one. It takes an exceptional performer to offer clarity as to who should win gold to an audience that doesn’t grasp the intricacies of a given sport. That is what helped make White, who is participating in his fourth Olympics in Pyeongchang, bigger than snowboarding.

White has won everything. He’s a two-time halfpipe gold medalist at the Olympics with a truckload of wins in snowboarding (13 gold medals) and skateboarding events (two golds, both in vert) at the X Games. In 2010 he was, competitively, undeniably on top of the snowboarding world, to the point that he earned his second Olympic victory lap. In Turin in 2006 and Vancouver four years later, he’d qualified for halfpipe in top position and posted a winning score on his first run. So both times he dropped in for his second run with the ability to do anything — to hit a half-dozen straight airs or to glide down the middle of the pipe with his arms raised triumphantly.

At the Vancouver Games, the mountain had been buzzing about a new trick he’d prepared, the Double McTwist 1260, a two-flip, three-spin ace in the hole that White had saved in case a competitor threatened his place atop the podium. (Yes, this is the same trick that White threw down twice on his big 2018 qualifying run. Snowboarding is still new, and the expected degree of difficulty ramps up quickly.) On his second run, with the gold medal in hand, he attempted, and hit it, anyway.

Before he landed that trick, White had already been the king of the mountain for four years. Even on his conservative runs, he seemingly jumped higher and hung in the air longer than his competitors. White was Jordanesque in his ability to fly and sear his image, alone, into the public consciousness.

In 1999, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater changed the world, or at least did its part. The first in a line of wildly successful skateboarding video games, it completed the sale of the sport to the masses and made Hawk the face of not just skateboarding, but extreme sports in their entirety. It’s hard for an individual-driven sport that lacks regularly televised competitions to attract a mainstream audience today, let alone in the ’90s. But this game took skate culture — the clothes, the music, the artistry — and presented it without the restrictions of real life.

Suddenly, there was an experience in a halfpipe even for kids miles away from skate parks. The tricks that took professionals years of practice and dozen of broken bones to master were now accessible to those who didn’t want to risk suffering physical pain. Skateboarding had been around for decades, but it exploded when Hawk’s video game brought non-skaters into the culture.

For a time, the punk scene became mainstream. People who had never made the effort to learn to ollie (a skill that required just one push of a button in Pro Skater, but significantly more practice in real life) rocked skate shoes and Birdhouse T-shirts. On MTV, programming execs eyed a skate-adjacent turn. Even Nickelodeon skitched the trend. This vibe, the wild hair, the Southern California cool, became a nationwide fascination. And in that ideal moment, White — then 19 with a wild mane of orange hair — blew the field off the mountain in the Turin Games and became the perfect avatar for skateboard and snowboard culture.

White is no longer a cult hero, or even just the most famous snowboarder of all time. He’s willfully shed the “Flying Tomato” nickname that he was given in the aughts. He has cut his hair, taken to tending to the business side of his apparel and events empire, begun to target a 2020 Tokyo Olympic skateboarding appearance, and become what The New York Times’ John Jeremiah Sullivan called a “rascal-turned-statesman.” White may still be the best snowboarder in the world (he scored a perfect 100, just the third in history, at a competition in Snowmass, Colorado, last month), but his spot atop the sport is no longer untouchable. White faltered at the Sochi Olympics, placing fourth in halfpipe after a training season marred by injury and a flirtation with snowboard slopestyle (a course-based event that White qualified for in 2014 before withdrawing), and required 62 stitches after hitting the lip of the pipe and slamming face-first into the ground while training in Cardrona, New Zealand, last October.

Tony Hawk is nearing 50, and his name is inextricable from an entire era in popular culture, despite the fact that most people have little idea what he achieved competitively. White has a comparable level of fame that is as much a testament to his abilities as it is a reflection of his emergence in a time when snowboarding was as appealing as it may ever be. Like Hawk, White is bigger than his sport, and that’s been reflected in his relationship with competitors and teammates. In 2010 he told Rolling Stone’s Vanessa Grigoriadis that none of his close friends were snowboarders. Fame has separated him from his peers who don’t have his financial powers or legion of fans. “White was his own entity, a brand and an icon but not always one of the guys,” The Washington Post’s Rick Maese wrote this month. “He was in his own tax bracket, and his status and fame put him in his own world.”

Maybe Chloe Kim, the 17-year-old snowboarding phenom who won gold in the women’s halfpipe while similarly getting much, much more air than her competitors, will become the next snowboarder like White. Or maybe it’s a small miracle that a snowboarder ever became a recognizable figure, not only in the context of the Olympics, but in pop culture at large. Regardless, the halfpipe final in Pyeongchang should serve as a reminder of what made White so special in the first place. He’ll drop in after everyone else, again, with a chance to take one more victory lap, reclaim gold, and prove that his status never eclipsed his abilities.