Crowds were packed at the bottom of the halfpipe on a snowy January day at Breckenridge, the last stop of the U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix. It was final run with Olympic berths at stake. At the top, the underdog dropped in launching a defining run that would write the first chapter in one of sport’s greatest stories of athletic accomplishment. Right behind him was the upstart young kid. His history would be written another day.
It was essentially a winner take all for the fourth spot on the 2002 Olympic Team. J.J. Thomas, a local favorite, versus the young man NBC commentators called the Mighty Mite of snowboarding, 15-year-old Shaun White.
That day in 2002 was Thomas’ date with destiny, rocketing to amplitude never seen as he launched his McTwist out of the Breckenridge superpipe. The curly-haired kid Shaun White countered with a sensational McTwist to a 900. But it wasn’t enough.
On that chaotic day in Breckenridge, Thomas and White were rivals for a spot on Team USA. Time would paint a different story over the next 16 years. Thomas would go on to be a part of the fabled USA Olympic podium sweep. White would regroup and launch a career of unprecedented dominance in his sport.
While White had dreams as a young teen in 2002, by the time he dropped into his first Olympic halfpipe at Torino four years later, he was already a budding super star of the sport – the Flying Tomato with his bushy red hair flowing out from his helmet. In 2010, he was a more sophisticated Shaun White – one of the greatest stars of action sports. He was expected to win. And he did.
Then came 2014 – a humbling experience, by Shaun’s own words. He tried to double up with slopestyle, and it took its toll. He tried to take on mother nature on halfpipe day. And mother nature always wins. In 2018, he made it to PyeongChang – wracked by injury but buoyed by a perfect score to clinch his spot on the team.
The day prior to the men’s halfpipe in Phoenix Park it was a joyful women’s contest. Much of South Korea was there to watch its national hero Chloe Kim. She took the lead with a strong first run, in command from the start and upping the tally on her victory lap third run. It was never in doubt.
Shaun’s day was anything but joyous. His first run was strong, but he had left the door open. Japan’s Ayuma Hirano kicked it in, taking the lead as Shaun couldn’t land his second run.
As joyous a day as it was for Chloe Kim, Shaun White faced open warfare. A month earlier White had thrown a perfect 100 in the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix at Aspen-Snowmass. Oh, what he would given for that run one more time.
At 31 years old, Shaun White is still the class of his sport. And it was yet a different Shaun White who arrived in Korea last month. It was a Shaun who had been humbled four years earlier and had not forgotten. It was a Shaun who crashed violently in New Zealand six months earlier – almost dashing his Olympic dreams. It was a Shaun White who wanted to be a part of Team USA, sharing the stage with his friends and teammates.
And it was a Shaun White who sobbed after nailing a do-or-die final run to win Olympic gold. In his eyes that day you could see real pride – even deeper than his gold medal days in Torino or Vancouver.
“I had to find the love of the sport again,” said White. “My will was really tested. After I won, it all came rushing back. I really broke down. All of those struggles were worthwhile. Putting that medal on again representing the USA, to be an Olympian again, I’m so proud and thankful.
White had to dig deep on that last run. He had to see Hirano’s back-to-back 1440s and raise him. He had to combine tricks he had never linked before. This was warfare. But this is what it takes to win in the Olympics.
In a run that was generations beyond that 2002 McTwist to 900, White soared skyward out of the pipe. He matched Hirano’s back-to-back 14s and linked it to his trademark double McTwist. A clean run to Olympic gold.
And like any good story, this one came full circle.
A few days later at USA House, Shaun took to the stage to celebrate his win. But it was also a time to celebrate his coach. Snowboarding is a tight fraternity. After 2014, White changed a lot of things. Most notably, he thought back on his career and called longtime friend J.J. Thomas to help.
“J.J. stood by me through all the ups and downs,” said White. “He helped me channel my energy. He was there for me on the mountain and off to help me achieve my own dreams and goals. He left his family to be with me here to help me pursue MY dreams.”
As you watched the two of them on stage your mind couldn’t help but wander back to that snowy day in Breckenridge. Here they were as grown men – each sharing pride in their Olympic experience – a slice of the American snowboarding story spanning 16 years.