Shaun White: A Snowboarding Legend Resurrected

Three-time Olympic gold medalist talks PyeongChang after disastrous face injury and his music and extreme sports festival, Air + Style

Shaun White of the United States celebrates with the American flag after winning the gold medal in the Snowboard Men's Halfpipe competition at Phoenix Snow Park on February 14, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea. Credit: Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images

Shaun White makes it back from PyeongChang, South Korea – with his latest Olympic gold medal dangling from his neck – just in time to delve into another of his passions, putting on one of the most distinctive music and action sports festivals in the world: Air + Style. As I arrive at Exposition Park in downtown Los Angeles, I'm whisked away in a motorcade of golf carts with the megastar snowboarder in tow. We're barreling backstage alleyways toward the main stage to watch a performance by electro rock conjurers, Phantogram. White's girlfriend, Sarah Barthel, is the singer and he's eager to support her show. After introducing the band on stage, White joins me near the mixing board – the perfect locale, amid a packed crowd of festivalgoers, for the vaporous sights and sounds of one of his favorite acts. All the while, the elated snowboarding icon cheers on the band throughout their evocative set.

The festival's headliners also include Phoenix, Gucci Mane and Zedd – but music isn't the only highlight. Air + Style showcases two unique competition courses – one made of snow and one of cement – littered with professional skaters and snowboarders pulling off their best tricks and runs for a jam-packed crowd of fans rooting them on. "A contest course that replicates some of my favorite DIY skateparks in the world?" exclaims Blood Wizard Pro Skater, Chris Gregson. "This is destined to be epic!" Gregson took third place in the festival's first-ever best trick contest with a kickflip lipslide revert over the doorway channel – skate lingo for an incredibly unforgiving trick that balances along the steep concrete quarter pipe's coping.

Just as White's snowboarding legend has become larger than his persona, Air + Style – a harmonious collision of music and action sports – has grown exponentially into an international event with stops in Los Angeles, Beijing and Sydney, Australia. Each year, White brings snow to downtown Los Angeles in an effort to, as he puts it, "Share the culture behind snowboarding." As to why he felt compelled to add festival mogul to his already notable resume, White says, "I was at Coachella, having the time of my life with my friends and I was like, 'Why don't I have one of these?' Selfishly, it's just such a great way for me to be around music, I just love being a part of it."

Growing up in upstate New York, Josh Carter from Phantogram says he discovered a lot of indie bands through skate culture and its videos. "I found bands like Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, even Wu-Tang Clan, through skate culture," Carter explains. "There's definitely a subconscious flow between all these disciplines at Air + Style. Rhythmically, this all makes sense."

Following Phantogram's performance, White and I find a quiet place backstage where the golden boy discusses his dreadful injury that landed him in the hospital with sixty-two stitches in his face just before the Olympics, shares a few stories surrounding his two Rolling Stone magazine covers, and explains how snowboarding in the Olympics set the pace for skateboarding in Tokyo 2020.

You're on top of the world right now, coming home from the South Korea with your third gold Olympic medal. Tell me about your dramatic final run with those back-to-back 1440s.
I hadn't practiced the 1440s [or four revolutions] much. I wanted to wait until the half-pipe was great and the adrenaline and pressure were on – that's when I do my best. On any other day, if you brought me to that pipe and it was cloudy and crumby and hard to see, I would never throw those tricks. But it was the Olympics, and I knew I had to do it. That seed of doubt was completely removed from my mind – I knew it was going to happen, so I better take my best shot at it. I looked down the mountain, saw the wind marker perfectly still; the crowd was silent. I could hear the music over the loudspeaker – "Rockstar" by Post Malone. I felt like it was my moment, and I could visualize the run. I knew if I could hit my first trick hard and huge, I would land with the best chance of nailing the second trick. So, I landed the two 1440's and I was like, 'Lets get it done, let's finish this.' I had never done that run before. I've done the tricks separately, but that was the first time I put them all together like that – the perfect moment.

You had left Sochi 2014 with bitter disappointment. How does winning in PyeongChang put Sochi into a new perspective for you?
It was all part of the path. I would have loved to pop that third Olympics and get a three-peat. But maybe I would have retired after that, because I had lost interest in the sport. And instead, I've come back from total disappointment to find that excitement again, a rekindled love for snowboarding. What an amazing situation to be in – from winning those first two games to complete disappointment, and then being able to win in that last moment, right when it matters. And I just love the support I've been getting from friends and family, who watched from home. It felt like they were all their right with me. You forget how far the story resonates.

What changed for you between Sochi and PyeongChang?
I had won the two medals and then I had this disappointing finish at Sochi and it was more of a mindset thing, you know? I had the tricks to win, but I just kind of lost that motivation for it – it's sad to say. But when you win, and then win after winning, you have to find new motivation every time. Plus, honestly, going for this third win, I was biting off more than I could chew. I was doing the music thing – recording and touring with my band – and gearing up to compete in both slopestyle and halfpipe – the two disciplines in the sport. So all of this was happening literally at the same time.

I lost the fire and came up short. After the Olympics, it was tough. It wasn't a physical thing – it's not like I needed to do more sit ups. I had to figure out, 'How do I reboot and make myself love the sport again?' So I took a break. I did my little fun run in music. I did a summer at my home in Malibu and we had barbeques and hangouts. I was just doing my thing and it felt amazing. And when all that time had past, I really missed snowboarding. That's when I changed every single aspect around me – new business manager, new public relations manager; I got a trainer and a physical therapist – and started acting like a real athlete.

You've had an incredibly dramatic season leading up to PyeongChang, beginning with serious injuries while training in New Zealand. What happened?
It was a beautiful day, everything was going great – they were playing classic rock at the halfpipe – and I was killing it, doing these amazing tricks. I really wanted to link this combination – the back-to-back 1440s. One trick was going really well, so I was going to try to put them together. And then, on my first try, I hit the deck, flew to the bottom and smash my face. There was a pool of blood and next thing you know, I'm in a helicopter on the way to the hospital. I had pulmonary lung contusions – my lungs were filling with blood – and I couldn't fly home. They stitched my face back together.

What was your mindset after being hospitalized and having surgery? Were you afraid you wouldn't be able to compete in the Olympics at the level you need to win?
No, I knew I could compete. It was just such an emotional killer. I was just at an all-time high and then, boom, I'm in the hospital. So I had a lot of different emotions and questions at that point: 'Do I really want this? Am I willing to let this happen to myself again?' I was honestly just sitting there wondering what the hell happened. I've fallen plenty of times throughout my career, but I've had very minor injuries [knocks on wood]. I wear my helmet. I know what I'm doing. So, for me, it was really a mental question of,  'Do I really want to get back out and try this trick again?' Because its like, 'I know I can do it, but I also knew I could do it that day I crashed.' And at that point, I was getting calls from friends and family, saying, 'Dude, what's the deal? You got medals. You're blessed and well off enough to sail into the sunset. So do you really need to do this?'

My coach and training team were there to help me get back on the snow. And so that's what happened. Normally when I'm going to the Olympics, I'm so far ahead and I can push past everyone and when I land my run – I know I'm going to win. I usually win with my first run and I get a victory lap. This time, it wasn't like that. The injury pushed me back so far that when we got to the Olympics, one of the other riders was almost on my level. But I still knew that if I could go bigger than him, and just ride the way I ride, it would to be enough to beat him.

In the qualifying event at Snowmass, also in dramatic fashion, you needed a high score to make the Olympic team – and your final run scored a perfect 100. What was your mental state in that moment, just before taking your final run and last chance at making the team?
At Snowmass, I wanted to start off with something heavy that the judges had never seen me do. So finally, I got over the fear during practice and I did the Cab Double Cork 1440 – the trick that I got injured on. I hadn't done it, and it was building up, so I finally took it off the pedestal and cleared the hurdle.

I got my self pumped and dropped in and the first hit was perfect and I rode into the second hit and it was perfect. The third hit was a 540 and I was like, 'Just finish it, you're doing so well.' I got this second wind while in the air, and I did the last two tricks pretty flawlessly. I wasn't expecting a perfect score; I was just hoping to win. And then I got the perfect hundred and it was emotional because that solidified me as an Olympian again. We had all been talking about going to the Olympics – I was doing all the NBC promos about going – but I wasn't even on the team yet. So, man, having that weight lifted, and knowing that I would get my moment to throw down at the Olympics – that was amazing.

Overcoming that fear and winning with that run was so special and it said a couple of things: I was concerned about some of the other riders' tricks – it's a judged event, so you never know how they're going to judge your runs and tricks. And when Scotty James put down his best run, and my run beat it – I was very confident, but I knew we still had to dig deep.

That's awesome. Are you determined to compete again in the 2022 Winter Olympics?
That's a popular question – normally, in the Olympics, you might only get one opportunity. Honestly, I'd love to go again. I'm so motivated to snowboard now, especially with this four-year grace period to have fun and learn new stuff. There's just one thing that's getting in the way – skateboarding. I would love to compete as a skateboarder in the 2020 Tokyo Games. And I'm thinking that's what I need to do, because I don't have to go to New Zealand or Scandinavia or Austria to train in the freezing cold. I have a bowl and a ramp in my backyard in Malibu and that's where I practice. I feel like that would be really refreshing for me and, in turn, would also help my snowboarding for 2022.

In your first Rolling Stone interview in 2006, after winning your first gold medal, there was a plan to have a homecoming parade in your honor in San Diego. You asked for a "crunk" goblet encrusted in diamonds for the event. Did you ever get the goblet?
I did get a goblet! At the time, Snoop Dogg had one – that was the thing. I was probably just joking about it, but then Lil Jon sent me a goblet. So if you come over to the house, you'll see it in my collection of memorabilia. I could just picture Lil Jon gluing all these little rhinestones to the goblet, burning his hand with the glue gun. [laughs]

Before you made the cover of Rolling Stone for the second time, in 2010, you had special American flag pants designed in anticipation of getting on the cover. How did that come about?
I'm all about this weird visualization. After my first Olympics, I was on the cover of Rolling Stone – an incredible honor. So leading up to Vancouver, I thought if I could win again, I could make the cover of Rolling Stone again. And what would I want that to look like? What would I be doing? I was super into Guns N' Roses at the time and saw a video of Axl Rose wearing these American flag shorts. I wasn't so sure I could pull off the shorts, but I had these American flag pants made and I thought it would be sick to wear them on the cover of Rolling Stone, if it were to happen. What's crazy is that they played Paradise City at the top of the half-pipe while we were competing and I actually met Axl Rose after; and he was hyped that they played his song on the half-pipe. Then, the house that we stayed at had this giant coffee table book of every Rolling Stone cover and, holy shit, mine was in there too.

So I won the Olympics for the second time and got the phone call from Rolling Stone. I flew to New York and we did the photo-shoot with the American flag pants. Jimi Hendrix had been slated for the cover, so as a tribute, we recreated the scene where he sets his guitar on fire; but instead, I lit my snowboard on fire.

Even deeper than that, I'm a huge rock & roll fan and I love going to the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas to walk around and see all the memorabilia – Billy Idol's jacket, Slash's guitar – but it's only rock & roll stuff and I'm an athlete. That said, I thought to myself, 'If all this stuff happens, if I win the Olympics again, I might be able to put my pants in the Hard Rock collection.' And then everything played out exactly how I had visualized it.

And so where are the pants now?
They're on display in the Hard Rock Hotel along with the burnt snowboard – it's sick.

Let's talk about Air + Style. You bring snow to downtown Los Angeles every year. Why?
It's that same sort of visual projecting – taking the time to notice something, visualize its potential, and then actually pursue it. I was at Coachella, having the time of my life with my friends and I was like, 'Why don't I do this?' I love music and I love going to festivals. I knew about this event, Air + Style, which was my favorite event to go to in Austria because it was a European Après Ski, where you could go snowboarding and then end up at a huge party with musical guests. My idea at the time was to really blow it out and put it in the city. And snowboarding has come so far, that I thought people would take notice, and we could involve the culture behind snowboarding. And skating, music and fashion are all so entwined. It just felt right and I took a swing at it.

This year Air + Style showcased skateboarding for the first time. As an Olympic champion in a relatively recent action sport, what's your take on skateboarding as a sport in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo?
When this came about, everybody kind of turned to me, wanting to know what I thought was going to happen – Is the Olympics going to wreck skateboarding? Is it going to help it? What I do know is that when the Olympics embraced snowboarding, it gave legitimacy to so many people within the sport. When I was a kid, my school didn't recognize snowboarding as a legitimate sport. They wouldn't credit me with independent Physical Education, so I still had to run laps at school. Meanwhile, I'm out winning these major events and awards. So fast-forward to today, you can be a snowboarder and become an Olympic gold medalist – there's a future in it. So I think it's going to be a lot easier now, for a skater who wants to pursue a career in skateboarding, to tell their family to believe in them. Skateboarding being included in the Olympics might not mean as much to the competitors themselves, but it does to the world. And that's one less obstacle to have to overcome.

Phantogram is playing and your girlfriend, Sarah Barthel, is the singer. Is this all an ostentatious ploy so that you can see each other while on the road?
They came through and played our first event, and they've been killing it. They're last album was awesome, and Fall in Love just went gold. They're great and the crowd is like, 'Wow, instruments! They're actually playing instruments.' [laughs] They hadn't played L.A. in a long time, so it was a perfect time to have them out. They actually did me a huge favor by playing, since they're back in the studio creating new music. I love them and they are such a great band and it's so awesome to see them come into their own. To be that close to a band and watch them evolve over time is really cool.

Are you ever going to just chill out?
Well, I'm going to take all those snowboarding travel days and turn them into sit at home and skate days. But I'm just a bit of a junk show before we do an event like Air + Style. I constantly ask myself stuff like 'Is it enough?' 'Did we get enough bands?' 'Is the skatepark big enough?' And then we get here and I'm just so proud to be apart of all of this. I like to be present in the event, and I'll sit there for hours meeting everyone with the gold medal, because I love it. And I love being in the crowd and watching the bands perform. I'm the guy texting management to turn the speakers up. [laughs] Selfishly, it's just such a great way for me to be around music, I just love being a part of it. This is really the only equivalent to my passion for snowboarding, is hosting a music festival.