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Shaun White: Big Hair, Big Air and the Killer Inside

Shaun White has been flying higher than anyone since he was seven years old. But at 23, the worlds greatest snowboarder has no idea where he's going to land next

March 18, 2010
shaun white cover 2010 Terry Richardson
Terry Richardson

Each morning during the Olympics, Shaun White tried to grab shotgun in the Team USA van headed to the mountain, but fifth-placer Louie Vito always beat him to it. "It pissed me off so much, because that meant he got to control the music," White says with a slight smile. "He'd play stuff he knew I hated, like Miley Cyrus' 'Party in the U.S.A.,' which is just painful. It's bumming me out even thinking about it." White was the snowboarder to beat in Vancouver – he's been that guy forever, actually – so it wasn't a bad idea to try to psych him out. Vito played a lot of Miley, every day, plus Dr. Dre and terrifyingly long bouts of reggae. "A lot of guys on the team are so into reggae," says White. "They'd all be like, 'Yeah, bumbaclot nation!' I'd just be sitting there, like, 'Jesus.'" He shudders. "They knew that all I wanted to hear was rock & roll."

White may rule snowboarding, one of the coolest youth cultures in America, but he's such a bundle of energy, ambition, discipline and competitiveness that the sport doesn't quite express who he wants to be. Rock fandom, as it turns out, is essential to White's "new zone, my whole new deal," as he puts it. "Getting into music has changed my personality and way of doing things," he says. "I'm far more open now."

Tonight, no longer encumbered by the capacious red-white-and-blue jerseys of Team USA, White's arms are festooned with a main-stage wristband he's been wearing since last year's Coachella festival, a red-and-black cloth bracelet from a vintage-rock store, and a lot of heavy silver jewelry, including an onyx cuff that's similar to one owned by Robert Plant, his musical hero and all-around obsession. (His favorite song in the world is Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love.") White's jacket is black leather, baby-skin soft and cut to highlight muscle. "I met Matt Sorum from Guns n' Roses in L.A., and he told me to come by his clothing store on Melrose," says White, digging his hands into his pockets. "Apparently, Slash only smokes a certain kind of cigarette, but they're super-long, so he made the pocket on this jacket extra long to fit them. As soon as I heard that, I was like, 'I'll take it! I'll take it!'" He breaks into a grin. "Then, since I was in the presence of rock heroes, I decided that I had to get the pants to match."

So here he is, our leather-ensembled two-time gold medalist über rock fan, 23, holding court with his team manager, bodyguard and two PR reps at a table in an upscale bistro in downtown Manhattan a day after leaving Vancouver, with only a brief stop in Chicago to school Oprah in the rigors of the double McTwist 1260: his showstopping trick, made up of two flips and three and a half spins, that he stuck at the Olympics after he won the gold – a "righteous victory lap," as he put it. With his flowing carrot top, White, who stands five feet nine and is built like a bantamweight boxer, is recognizable from across any room, and bejeweled matrons keep rushing over to offer him a big thumbs up. A waitress nearly pees her pants reading him the specials. "I used to hate on New York because it was cold and I didn't understand it, but now it's one of my favorite places," says White. "After the Turin Olympics four years ago, I went to Madison Square Garden for a Knicks game. They put me on the JumboTron, and the whole place stood up. It was unbelievable. I sat down, and I was shaking."

His first gold medal at Turin in 2006 may have blown White's mind, but the second one cemented his reputation as athletic and pop-culture legend. "Honestly, I'm never that proud of my performances, but this time at the Olympics feels different," he says. "I was able to get that last run in on the pipe, and I think that truly affected people. It showed something about myself to them, something more than what they knew."

Before he digs into a New York strip steak, White messes around with his iPhone, scrolling through some messages. He stops at a picture of Vice President Joe Biden at a news conference in Vancouver, with a video screen set up behind him to show clips of medalists' performances. "Man, I worked so hard to set this picture up right," says White, wriggling with excitement. "Check it out," he guffaws. "I'm shredding on the VP's head."

Snow boarding is a young sport, only 15 years into its mainstream popularity, but every year, the halfpipes get bigger and the tricks get wilder – in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, the longest rotation was only 720 degrees – and a lot of that has to do with the influence of White. He's an elegant athlete, strong and precise, so good that keeping up with him means literally taking your life in your hands: Double corks, a trick that White pioneered, put top-ranked snowboarder Kevin Pearce in the hospital with a brain injury right before the Olympics. "Doing these tricks is the most vertiginous feeling you can ever get, especially during the day, when the snow matches the sky," says White. "You're up there spinning, like, 'Where am I?' and your life depends on finding the blue line marking the pipe. It's kind of like tennis: You have to be quick and react quick."

On TV, White may play the eternal radical little dude – a goofy guy whose radicalism is sweetly unthreatening – but in person, he's not only intelligent and sophisticated but a stone-cold killer. Like Tiger Woods, whom White has called a "great guy deep down who just made some bad calls," he's as competitive about business as he is about sports: Between his own video game and his endorsements, including Target, Burton and Oakley, he made an estimated $9 million in 2008. Bud Keene, the halfpipe coach for the U.S. snowboard team, puts it this way: "Imagine an experiment where you mix the DNA of the most naturally talented athlete of a generation, say a Michael Jordan or a LeBron James, with the DNA of the hardest-working athlete imaginable, a Rocky Balboa or a Cal Ripken. Finally, you throw in the DNA from the most driven and uncompromising athletes you can think of, a Lance Armstrong or a Tiger Woods, and – voila! Out pops Shaun."

Last year, when White realized that his celebrity was creating a problem at public halfpipes – he was afraid to try new tricks because there always seemed to be a kid around with a cameraphone, ready to post a YouTube video of him falling on his butt – one of his sponsors, Red Bull, put together a plan out of a sci-fi movie: For an estimated $500,000, the company built White his own private halfpipe, a 22-foot monster with a foam pit, in a backcountry bowl near Silverton Mountain, in Colorado. That's a nutty thing to do, like building a race-car driver his own track. "People Google Earth-ed the pipe, and there was a big debate on the Internet if it was real or not," says White, smirking a little. "For sure, it was real. And it was pristine. A normal halfpipe is mauled by the public by 2 p.m., so this was just the perfect scenario."

White turned pro about a decade ago, and since then he has won every major snowboard contest at least once. He began snowboarding at six and went pro at 13, while also skateboarding under the mentorship of Tony Hawk, who considered him the most promising young skater he had ever seen. "Shaun's confidence is a family thing," says his brother, Jesse. "Our mom moved to Hawaii on her own when she was 18, and my dad marches to the same drummer. He just has it on the inside."

White's mom, a waitress, and father, a city employee, brought him up with a progressive attitude in Del Mar, a beachfront town near San Diego – he was named after a professional surfer, Shaun Tomson, and his parents imagined he might become one too. When Shaun was eight, his dad bought him a surfboard with a picture of the Tasmanian Devil on the back and took him into the waves. "After one big wave, I got washed, and I was like, 'I hate this,'" says White. "Taz just rocked me in the face."

His accommodating family hunted for a sport at which White and his siblings would excel, and found it in skiing, reachable with a few hours' drive to the San Bernadino mountains. White was so instantly fearless on skis that his parents put him on a snowboard to slow him down. "I kept hitting other people with the poles," he recalls. "I was a monster child." Pretty soon, he wanted to snowboard every weekend, but the family didn't have much money, so they bought a van to crash in at the mountain. Then White started winning contests – small purses at first, but with enough panache to get noticed by sponsors. He became the sport's youngest prodigy, dashing around the world with Mom and Dad. "Then I would go home to California, and everything was normal," he says. "I'd show up to play on the soccer team, and kids would be like, "Where were you – Japan? Anyway, Ninja Turtles are rad.'"

In middle school, as he turned pro, life began to change. "I couldn't even walk through the school without someone asking me to get them a board, or saying, 'Bro, put me on TV!'" he says. The school wouldn't give him credit for class work on the road – not even P.E. "It was a rich area, and the teachers were pretty bitter: 'How come he gets to do this and I don't?'" The family moved to Carlsbad, a nearby town, where White attended a high school which had a program that catered to kids with professional careers. "That school was awesome – and more than helpful," he says.

On the road, though, he began to find that he didn't quite fit in. After all, he was almost a decade younger than most of the snowboarders he was competing against. "I'd win a contest, and then I couldn't even go out to get the award because the ceremony was in a bar," he says. While his competitors were out having fun, he was in his room with his parents, playing video games. He had no interest in partying – and no qualms about taking advantage of the snowboarders he'd be facing off against the next day. "Sometimes, the night before a contest, they would give me a glass of milk to play quarters with them," says White. "I was like, 'Drink up! I'm going to rock you tomorrow, dude.'"

At 15, at a contest in Japan in which White was not the favorite, the other competitors decided that they didn't dig the jump. They agreed to throw the contest and split the prize money, but White refused to go along with the plan – then proceeded to win the event, pocketing $65,000. "It was a defining moment," he says. "I deserved it, I wanted it, and I got it. It was then that I realized that I can do anything I want to do."

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