SAAS-FEE, Switzerland — Shaun White has been a constant at the Olympics over the past generation, a transformative and dependable American star along with the likes of Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn and Simone Biles.
A professional snowboarder since childhood, White won the first of his three Olympic gold medals in the halfpipe at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. He was 19, and his long, red hair was a part of his signature. He has been the world’s most famous snowboarder since.
White is 35 now, competing in his fifth and, he said, final Winter Games. He finds himself in an unusual position: underdog. Of the legions of young athletes around the world whom he has helped inspire, a few have surpassed him in the halfpipe. But not many. Another medal, a final medal, is within reach.
In October, while training in Switzerland, White sat down with The New York Times for an on-camera interview, to discuss how he processes fear. It was a line of questioning put to about 40 Winter Olympic athletes who do dangerous feats, part of a Times project for the Beijing Games.
But White stood out, as usual. The years have added humility, wisdom and introspection to a child star turned middle-aged man.
(Excerpts from the interview have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
Tell me if you’re fearless.
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I would definitely not consider myself fearless. I just manage the fear. I think, over the years, I’ve learned to just manage it.
What is there to be scared of?
I mean, all sorts of things. The biggest is just your personal well-being. There’s so many ways that you can crash or things can go wrong. And there is an element of danger that you can take for granted at times. Everything’s going your way and things are good, and all of a sudden you’re kind of put in check by a big crash or an injury or something you weren’t expecting. I’ve had plenty of scenarios where my day was going perfectly well and then all of a sudden something just kind of went wrong and I happened to be 20 feet in the air. And it’s the worst place to have something go wrong. And next thing you know, you’re either heading to the hospital or trying to remember what happened. And yeah, it’s just the daily thing we deal with.
And how do you deal with it?
I like to think that I’m pretty calculated about it. I don’t just show up and do my tricks. I build up. I check out the course. I make sure that the weather is favorable. I make sure that I’m feeling solid and confident. I’m making sure that other people are riding, and you can feel the buzz and the kind of vibe at the halfpipe or the jumps or whatever it is. You kind of feel this momentum building within everybody. Everybody’s getting more comfortable and confident.
I think I’m pretty great, though, at walking away. It’s like when you watch poker. That’s edited. They’re not just playing every hand; they’re sitting there folding and folding and folding until they get the right feeling or they get the cards they’re looking for. And it’s kind of like that, which is difficult at times because there’s a time limit. There’s a counting clock that’s running down toward the Olympics or toward whatever big event you’re working at. You get to a point where like, gosh, like, OK, well, how many days can I push aside and wait for that special hand to come my way? So it’s just a numbers game at times. But I walk away all the time. There’s so many situations where I’m like, no, I’m not feeling it. It’s too windy. I’m a little tired, I’m a little jet-lagged, I’m a little something. Or my head’s just somewhere else. Or the conditions aren’t perfect. It’s just kind of like your gut feeling. And I usually listen to it. As one of the oldest competitors now, part of my career being this long, it has to be because — I know it is because — the amount of times I walk away, for sure.
How has that changed with age?
As I’ve gotten older, the fear is more relevant in my life. When I was younger, I didn’t really think too much about it, or I would get destroyed on the mountain and just bounce back up. And it was all good. It hurts a little more now. And I think after having certain injuries and certain obstacles to overcome, you realize you know what lies on the other side if you do get hurt: the long road to recovery, what that takes physically, mentally, what your friends go through, everybody that’s supporting you. It’s a lot.
Can that fear be a positive?
I think it goes in both directions. I’ve just been talking so far about the physical harm you can incur. But there’s the fear of failure, there’s the fear of disappointment for your team, your friends, your family, yourself. I always kind of describe it to people as if, say, you had to make a speech, a very long speech or a very important speech. And you know, you’re not very fond of public talking and the world is going to watch. Like, what are you going to do? And there’s no way to get out of it; you put yourself all in, you kind of burned the life raft. You’re going. This is happening. And so in some ways, you know, since there’s no exit strategy, you know, it helps you kind of push forward. At least for me, I look at it going, Wow, OK, this is like, this is happening. I better break this into chunks and learn every bit of it and make it my own and practice talking in front of my friends and family. Anything I can to better my situation before I get to this point.
You’ve seen other Olympic athletes talk about the pressure they feel. How much do outsiders like us contribute to these fears and pressures?
I’m in the hunt for something, so I don’t know how much I look at the outside while I’m doing what I do. I just know that since I was a kid, I can’t remember when I wasn’t favored to do well. And so I think I’ve grown with the pressure and in some ways I’ve been able to see it in a different light. Where if I’m in commercials or I’m on a billboard, or I see myself all the time on TV — hey, this is the hype building up, interviews and these things coming my way. I just kind of feel like, Oh wow, like, you know, people are supporting me, they’re backing me. They think I can do it. I think I can do it. This is great.
Like most top snowboarders, you’ve had serious injuries. How do you come back after one?
There is definitely a huge hurdle that you have to clear. And it’s all fear of that trick. You have to convince yourself that it’s going to be OK. Which is hard because the last time you tried it, you were pretty sure it was going to be OK. And it didn’t work out that way.
There’s definitely this lingering fear that you have to overcome. And you have to kind of like, I don’t know, like — did a dog bite you once? And does that mean you don’t go near dogs anymore? Some people, that happens. It’s a level of fear of like, can I trust this animal? Will they be friendly this time? Or are they going to have a little attitude?
But you slowly get over it, and it doesn’t just happen overnight. When things do go wrong, I’ve learned this very simple, valuable lesson of what not to do. And so when I come back, I’ve made new calculations and adjustments in my head of what has to happen for it to be successful. I very well know what not to do, in the back of my mind, of what happened before. So I’m not really starting over. I’m starting from experience. And you know that that can be a very powerful thing.
What motivates you to keep going?
I’m incredibly motivated by the fear of disappointing myself for not achieving my goal that I set out for myself. I’m driven by wanting to, I guess, see how far I can push things. Having done this for so long and being one of the veterans of the sport feels incredible. It’s a motivator to continue. People are like, ‘Oh, I thought you were done,’ and you’re like, no I’m still doing it. And doing it on a high level. And that’s really an amazing feeling.