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

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Though White is the most recognizable face of snow-boarding, and possesses the clan's core value – fun is good – he's cut from a different cloth. He's never lived in the mountains full-time, usually drinks alcohol on a full stomach (he gets a headache otherwise) and has zero interest in watching snowboard or skate videos. "I'd rather do it, not watch it," he says. When he goes to the mountain, he prefers to ride for an hour or so and then cruise – at which point, he puts thoughts about snow-boarding entirely aside, listening to his favorite bands, like T. Rex, Roky Erickson and the Kinks, or watching concert footage on YouTube. "I love the sport of snowboarding so much, but I just don't want to talk about it, ever," says White. "When someone approaches me and says, 'Dude, it's snowing in Mammoth!' I don't know what to say, because I could really care less. I mean, I'm sure Slash doesn't want to talk about guitars. He probably wants to talk about kittens."

In fact, none of White's friends are snowboarders: He's too much of a loner for that, and too competitive. "The show Entourage always intrigues me because that guy's got his homeys with him everywhere, and I never roll like that," he says. "I've never had a crew. I've just been on my own, always." This fact has not been lost on the rest of Team USA, some of whose members, while insisting that they harbor no personal animosity toward White, created their own collective last year called Frends (they left out the "I" to symbolize the communitarian spirit of the sport). After word of White's personal halfpipe got out, Kevin Pearce had his sponsor, Nike, build him one of his own, and then invited the Frends to ride on it with him while White claimed his pipe for himself alone.

That's pretty heavy stuff, but White made a point of getting a little closer to some of those guys in Vancouver. Last night, at least, he had a friend to run around with, an old buddy of his brother's who tore his ACL snowboarding and now lives in Greenwich Village, and the two of them went to a bar downtown. "All I know is that we were at some place where you'd be hanging out and some crazy fog would roll through, and then these cool jets would come out," White says. It's the following afternoon, and he's chilling in a penthouse suite of a Soho hotel with a dead-on view of the Empire State Building from a wraparound terrace. He puts David Bowie on the stereo and asks his willowy blond publicist to order some calamari. A couple of Louis Vuitton trunks sit on a bureau in his bedroom, with his clothes neatly unpacked in the closet. His gold medal is stashed in his carry-on luggage. "When I was little, with my parents in the van, I would take showers by putting water in a milk carton and dumping it over me," White says, staring out the window from his seat on a modern gray couch. "And now I get a place like this. It's just so bizarre."

Those who know White well say he is remarkably unchanged by his success. "What I respect about Shaun is that he is down-to-earth," says his friend Andre Agassi. "Even with insane talent at such a young age, he conducts himself with no pretense or sense of entitlement. I imagine Shaun has the same fun and intensity in the Olympics at 23 that he had on a family vacation at six. It's just built in."

But being the king of the world isn't as easy as it's cracked up to be, and White starts to open up about the past few years, which have been hard for him. "I was ready for the 2006 Olympics," he says. "I wanted it. I wanted the attention. But afterward I freaked out a little bit." We think of White as a symbol of freedom and rebellion, but he's been sheltered in a lot of ways. He loves fashion now, particularly when it intersects with rock history – "Think about Robert Plant onstage with a smoke and a drink, holding a dove, in a frilly white shirt. How do you beat that?" – and genuinely likes designing his Target line, but before he was an adult, he never bought clothes in a store. "I've always ridden for a company, so since I was a kid I've gone shopping by walking into a sponsor's warehouse and filling my bag," he says. "The concept of a dressing room just blew my mind. I was like, "You're going to let me put on these pants, right here? Just drop drawers?'"

So after the Olympics, at 19, he resettled in California only to discover that his friends from home were all off at college or working nine-to-five jobs. "I was so frustrated, hanging at home with Mom," he says. Also, he had a girlfriend – he's not attached now – and he didn't feel right bringing her to his mother's house, so he bought the best home his millions could buy: a seven-bedroom place on three acres in Rancho Santa Fe, a blingy subdivision near San Diego. Sprinkler systems, kitchen cabinets, custom-made couches – it was a lot for a teenager to handle, and White soon bought another place, a small house in the Hollywood Hills. "I didn't know what went into a home, and a big house was just headache after headache," he says. "I don't even want to go there anymore. Now I just use it to throw parties, like a big Halloween party."

But it's downtime that kills White more than anything else. "I just can't relax," he says. "I've been competing since I was seven years old, so when I have time off, I can't handle it." A few months ago, when he had some dead space between contests, he bought four surfboards and almost ran off to Hawaii. "Then I realized that the winter waves are 24 feet tall," he says. "I didn't think it was a good idea to drown before the Olympics." He can't go out much anymore; he gets mobbed, and it's no fun anyway, because he always has to be vigilant about spit-shining his image. "Times have changed, and it's such a bummer," he says. "I was just in a bar in Colorado, and someone told me Hunter Thompson was sitting right there once and threw a stick of dynamite behind the bar. Do you know what would happen if I did that? If I put the TV out the window right now, it would be international news. You still want to rock-star out and do weird things, but I guess now you have to do it more creatively."

But White didn't wallow in these feelings: Instead, he decided to commit himself more deeply to skateboarding. "It was the best decision, because it made everything new for me," he says. "In that sport, I'm still the underdog. I buy all the trucks and wheels myself – and I don't have many sponsors." He loves the feeling of skating, plus he prefers to hang out in cities rather than mountains. Now he spends all summer in skate competitions. "I love skating in Cleveland," he says, "because I can go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame afterwards, losing my mind looking at Freddie Mercury's jacket." He might snowboard again in the 2014 Olympics, but there's part of him that would rather push for getting skateboarding into the trials. "I've reached my goal with snowboarding," he says. "If skating got into the Olympics, I would be tempted to hold off on shredding for a year and just skate, to make that my new goal."

In New York, he usually gets around by skateboard, too. "If I'm walking on the street, I have to put my hair in a bun so I don't get recognized," he says. "But if I'm skating, I can let it out, because by the time people have seen me, I'm gone."

From White's perspective, the evolution in snowboarding that he has witnessed and catalyzed over the course of his career is a good thing. "Times have changed, but it's rad, you know?" he says. "When I first learned to snowboard, we weren't allowed on mountains, and now they compete to have us. Nineteen-year-olds are making six figures as snow-boarders. There's even skate P.E. and surf P.E. in schools. Can you imagine going to school in California and not wearing skate shoes? You'd be laughed at." To White, snowboarding is a metaphor for achieving your dreams. "I like the idea that you can do whatever you want to do," he says. "That's what life is about." There's a poster of Jim Morrison in the office where he works on his video games, and he thinks about it sometimes, what Morrison's face means to him – freedom, for sure, and experimentation. "I think about what people will think in the future when they see my face too," he says. "I don't know what I want them to think of, but I definitely wouldn't want it to be snowboarding, because there's so much more to me than that."

These days, White is learning to turn to one of his three Les Pauls when he needs to relax. "Music is my refuge, my getaway," he says. He has been playing guitar since he was 17, but he started to get more serious about it this year, jamming with his coach Keene on the road. White plays a lot of Guns n' Roses, Zeppelin and Hendrix. "He rips, but is very considerate and democratic playing with others," Keene says, "so you don't feel like his backup band."

In most areas of his life, it's impossible for White to deal with losing – the only place he accepts it as a possibility is Vegas, where he's dropped $60,000 in recent years: "I like to stay at the Hard Rock, because at least then when I lose money I can walk over to one of those cases and see Axl Rose's jacket or Billy Idol's glove – I'm all All right, that's awesome, take my money.'" But when he picks up his guitar, he's able to set aside his competitive streak. Since he started playing, life seems less stressful. Now when he's in L.A., White drives down to the beachfront towns of his youth for a different kind of shredding with a group of friends. "I think guitar is the best thing in the world," he says. "It's the only thing where no matter what I do, I can't do it all myself. There's only so good you can get in your room, and it's never going to sound as rad as if I play with other people. With guitar, I really can't win."

This story is from the March 18th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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