Shaun White: Attack of the Flying Tomato

He's an average 19-year-old who loves Zeppelin and 'Family Guy'. But this snowboarder also has something else: an Olympic gold medal he's hoping will help him out with the ladies

Shaun White at Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, New York, on March 4th, 2005. Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty

AN OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL DOESN'T COME WITH AN INSTRUCTION MANUAL, A TUBE OF metal polish or even a box. Shaun White, nineteen-year-old snowboarder champion, earned his golden medallion with a bravura performance on an Italian halfpipe. Now he's trying to figure out: What do you do with the damn thing? He expounds on some of the possibilities. He could never take it off, eventually developing a medal-shaped tan line on his chest. He could use it as a backstage pass for everything in life: If a waitress ever hesitated to add eggs to his breakfast order, he could whip out the medal. Then the impressed waitress, White explains, would say, "I'll see what I can do." But one option, seems strongest. With a crooked grin, White says, "I could hang it from the rearview mirror of my car."

White is cool enough to enjoy the notion of bringing home a medal smeared with grape jelly and bread crumbs — but not so cool that he was able to hold back the tears at the medal ceremony. ("I wasn't crying, dude," he insists. "I had some tears come out," he explains, making a distinction so subtle as to be nonexistent.) In his nineteen years of life on this planet, he's seen snowboarding evolve from outlaw sport to extreme-athletics juggernaut. Not long ago, it seemed like an awkward, pandering idea for the Olympics to have snowboarder at all. Now snowboard events are a highlight of the schedule.

Snowboarding, once a good way to get ejected from ski resorts, has gone mainstream. In no small part, that's because of White's shaggy charm and the amazing feats of twisting airborne ballet he can perform with a plank of wood strapped to his feet.

White is a master of the 1080, meaning he can do three full rotations of 360 degrees after launching himself into the air. He concedes that "1080s are cool, but they're not that fun to do. They're hard and pretty technical. What's most fun for me is really big jumps and long, slow spins." That's not how one wins professional events, but it's what the sport is really about for White. He says, "I can have fun if there's a little snow bump, and me and my friends, we're just trying back flips and landing on our heads, you know what I mean? Honestly, I think that the way to become the best is just to have fun."

When White walks into a room, he barely seems to be expending any energy at all. His gait is halfway between a graceful professional athlete's and a slouching teenager's. (Even standing up straight, he's only five foot eight and around 140 pounds.) But when he thinks something's funny — an episode of Family Guy, or his brother, Jesse, clowning around with, an oversize cowboy hat — he jerks to life like there's an electrical current running through his veins.

There are other snowboarders who can do more elaborate stunts than White: Some of the Europeans can spin like dervishes, landing 1260s or even 1440s, but you can practically see the beads of sweat flying off them when they do the trick. White says. "I've got friends who do tricks, and when they make it look easy, that's the hardest. I think that's good style: to be able to perform your tricks at a pristine level and make it look good. You might watch and say. 'Oh, he isn't doing much' — but that's when you're doing really well." White is talking about his friends, but he's describing himself. His effortless style is what makes him so appealing: On the halfpipe, he looks like a relaxed weekend rider who somehow stumbled into doing one astonishing trick after another.

"Even five years ago, I thought Shaun was one of the most amazing athletes on the planet, says skateboarding legend Tony Hawk. "I first saw him snowboarding when he was about nine, and he was just this little pixie with a giant helmet, coming down the halfpipe. Now, he's grown into his own style — plus he can do tricks five feet higher than everyone else does them."

White is fair-skinned and freckled, and he hides behind an enormous mop of darkred hair. That hair gave him one of his nicknames: the Flying Tomato. He used to embrace it, even wearing headbands with a flying-tomato logo, but he has grown tired of it. Other nicknames he has had: Future Boy (from when he was a prepubescent prodigy, pegged as the future of the sport), the Egg (for how his skull looks with a helmet on top), Señor Blanco (Spanish).

He feels like he's ready for a new nickname, but he knows that by the international rules of sports and coolness, he can't make it up himself. "I'd just come up with something bad like 'Incredibly Handsome Man,' " he says, and then reflects for a moment. "Sir Shaun of Shaunalot." His stare is completely deadpan. "If you wanna pick it up, that's fine. I'm throwing out gold here."

When Sir Shaun of Shaunalot galloped into Bardonecchia, Italy — two hours west of Turin — for the 2006 Winter Olympics, he had words of greeting from the United States: "Buon giorno," the Italians would say; White would cheerfully reply, "Hey, Bon Jovi!" The locals would correct him, so White would listen, nod and then make them crazy by saying, "Yeah, yeah, 'Bon Jovi.' "

The Olympic Village has a reputation as an international cultural exchange, if by "cultural exchange" you mean "raucous party and hookup scene." But White reports that, at least during the opening days, the athletes were too nervous and focused to have any fun that extended beyond trading commemorative pins. In addition. White says, many of the Olympic facilities looked as if construction had been abandoned halfway through. Skier Bode Miller ended up living in an RV instead of at the Village; White had to barricade his bathroom with rolled-up towels so it wouldn't flood the rest of his living area.

"People were wound pretty tight," says White, "The Olympics is really awesome but for some snowboarders, it's not the biggest thing in the world. So we were pretty lighthearted about the whole situation. But these biathlon guys were intense. And it was even sketchier because they have guns. They ski really far and then they shoot things. So I was thinking, 'If I mess with these guys, they will ski me down and then gun me down.' "

White had been telling anyone who would listen that the Olympics was just another event, no different from the X Games or any other contest on the snowboard circuit. In his heart, he knew that wasn't true. He had seen too many snowboarders actually training hard — not the strong suit of most riders. White himself had been gearing up for the Olympics for a full year, even going to New Zealand last summer to take advantage of the opposite seasons.

He had missed qualifying for the 2002 Olympics by only three-tenths of a point — and then had to watch as the Americans swept the halfpipe event. He didn't want that to happen again, but at the 2004 XGames he tore the meniscus tissue in his knee. He couldn't have an MRI, because he has metal left in his chest from the two snrgeries he had in the first year of his life to correct heart defects. "It would rip everything out," he says. "I'd be like a turtle in a microwave." At sixteen, he had to go through six painful months of knee rehab. "It made me really appreciate how much I love snowboarding," he says.

So White stood at the lip of the Olympic halfpipe, wearing the pinstriped USA team uniform, so puffy it made the athletes look like halzmat workers. Nobody could see the nerves on his face — it was covered by an American-flag bandanna. But on his first of two qualifying runs, White felt the jitters and fell down during a landing. He was in seventh place, and only the top six would advance to the finals. "I was so mad at myself," he says. "I really don't like falling. But when the pressure's on, I always seem to go bigger and land everything better."

On the second qualifying run, White had to go big or go home. While AC/DC's "Back in Black" blared, White soared, nailing his second qualifier, scoring 45.3 out of a possible 50 points, the best score in the field.

Before the finals, White says, his nose started to bleed — too much dry mountain air. While he tried to make sure that he wasn't staining his American-flag bandanna, he had to ward off an NBC camera crew that rushed him, hoping to get footage of every last red drop of snowboarder blood. Then White cruised back into the halfpipe; he stopped thinking. In less than a minute, he launched himself into the air six times, adding more twists with each assault on the sky. A Frontside Air led to a McTwist, to a Cab 1080 and ultimately to a Backside 900. Each time, White seemed to float casually back to the earth rather than do something as prosaic as landing. He scored 46.8, blowing away the rest of the field and earning a gold medal with a big hole in the middle.

"It hits you the next day," White says. "You're like, 'Wow, did that seriously just happen?' " He reflects, still not quite believing it. "I got a gold medal; I guess I'm an athlete now," he finally says. "I gotta start going to the gym."

WHITE, BORN SEPTEMBER 3RD, 1986, started snowboarding when he was just six. "He was crazy on skis," remembers his mom, Cathy. "I thought, 'Maybe on a snowboard he'II sit on his butt and go slow.' " No luck: By the end of his first day on the board, Shaun was already doing jumps, says his older brother, Jesse.

"Mozart was supposed to play piano," Jesse says, and shrugs. "It was that kind of deal."

Shaun had started skateboarding only months earlier and was already a prodigy on pavement. Snowboarding became a group activity for all five members of the White family — Jesse is seven years older than Shaun, and his sister, Kari, is one year older — even though the closest slopes were a three-hour drive away from their home in Carmel Valley, just outside San Diego. While's father, Roger, was an avid surfer, and both of Kathy's parents had been roller-derby skaters in the Seventies; she remembers doing her homework at the roller rink and having sawdust in her books from the skates' wooden wheels.

The family started entering lots of snowboard competitions; Kari was U.S. Open junior halfpipe champ, in 2000. Sometimes those contests would lead to a culture clash. "We would shower at rest stops, using milk cartons for the hot water," White recalls. "We prided ourselves on being more ghetto. We had this huge white van, and I remember that my dad stuck a pizza box over the radiator — It kept the heat in, or something. We get to superfancy upper-class ski resort, and some lady came out and said, 'You can't park that thing here.' So my mom leans out of the car and says, 'Hey, honey, take that pizza box off the radiator!"

White noticed pretty early that although his parents had ordinary jobs — Mom was a waitress, Dad was a city employee — they were not like other kids' parents. "If you wanted to talk about sex or drugs, they'd talk about it," he says. "I'd go over to friends' houses, and their mom would be convinced they were a saint — because they didn't talk. Without trying to be corny, I would say snowboarding brought us all together, because it gave us something to do. Instead of trying to experiment with sketchy stuff, I had a focus."

White won every amateur competition around "for, like, five years in a row"; at the age of thirteen, he went pro. "I wanted to get challenged," he says. After a few years, White was winning pro competitions; he has eight X Games snowboarding medals (plus one as a skateboarder).

Ever since seeing Happy Gilmore, White says, he has thought it was cool to win an oversize prize check: say, $40,000 on three square feet of foamcore. He regrets only that you can't cash the humongous checks at banks. But although his demeanor is laid-back and just a touch goofy, he's a fierce competitor: In his first youth soccer game ever, he delivered a flying kick to the chest of an opponent. "I gotta win all the games," he says. "Everybody makes fun of me because I get really into it. We've had Monopoly matches from hell where you don't really talk to each other afterwards."

That's not the bad behavior that snow-boarders are famous for: Only eight years ago, the first time they were included in the Olympics, gold medalist Ross Rebagliati promptly failed his drug test — coming up positive not for some performance-enhancing steroid but for marijuana he said he had inhaled secondhand. None of the early snowboarders knew whether the sport's success would be as ephemeral as roller derby's, so they lived for the moment.

"Everybody was just these gnarly ruffians," White says. "They were on this mission of destruction — running through the walls of a hotel, from room to room. And it's changed now: There's family men making a living at snowboarding."

The sport is now safer for major corporate sponsors, which brings in more money; a leading snowboarder can pull down about a million dollars a year, between prize money and endorsements. White's main sponsor is Burton Snowboards; his deal includes a clothing line, for which he designs the clothes himself (in collaboration with Jesse). Shaun has a fondness for giving his licensed outerwear outlandish names: Creations include "the Jacket of the Gods" and "the Most Unholy Jacket Ever." In fashion, as in so many areas of his life, Led Zeppelin has served as his inspiration: Reflecting on how Jimmy Page's floppy sleeves looked protruding from a jacket led to the invention of extendable, detachable pinstriped sleeves for one of White's jackets. (He's also the star of a new snowboarding DVD, First Descent.)

For all of the money and the licensing deals, snowboarding still has a strong juvenile streak. White has fond memories of an epic fire-extinguisher battle in the hallway of a Tokyo hotel or, the time his brother barged into his hotel room at 2 A.M. wearing a banana costume. White says "We're still the dirty ones in the bunch, the sketchy snowboard kids. I don't think I'd have it any other way."

TWO DAYS AFTER WINNING THE gold medal, White returned to the United States on the private plane of NBC executive Dick Ebersol, a ride he shared with a couple dozen network advertisers. He could have stayed in Turin for parties and the closing ceremonies but decided that he had already marched in one parade (the opening ceremonies) and it was better to capitalize on his sudden fame and enjoy the publicity circuit available to a new American Olympic hero.

Regis and Kelly, Entertainment Tonight, Seal's birthday party: White's schedule is a surreal roll call of American pop culture. So perhaps it's inevitable that he starts joking about it; taking it seriously would mean taking himself seriously. When he's told that San Diego wants to have a parade for him, he assents, but on one condition: "I need a Crunk Juice glass with diamonds on it," he says. "I need a Crunk Goblet."

White isn't dating anyone right now; he travels so much, it's hard for him to keep a steady relationship going. Becoming a well-known athlete has helped him with girls, not because it's turned him into a player but because they started walking up to him. "I wasn't too good at the approach," he says. "But now I don't have to start up the conversation, and that made it a lot easier."

White made a joke at the Olympics about wanting to meet, and maybe date, figure skater Sasha Cohen. To his chagrin, he was soon being grilled about her by Bob Costas and every other overliteral journalist on the continent, as if White and Cohen were on the verge of selecting silver are for their registry. "That was just lame," he says. "She probably thinks I'm crazy now."

The most dramatic display of the sexual power of White's growing fame came a couple of years ago, at Ozzfest. "It was the randomest thing ever," White says. A guy in the crowd recognized him; apparently a fan, the guy lifted up the shirt of his girlfriend so White could get an eyeful. "My friend was in awe." White says. "He said, 'Does that happen a lot?" and I tried to pass it off it like it did. I mean, who doesn't want to show their girlfriend's boobs to me?"