Shaun White 2.0: Snowboarding's Clean-Cut Overlord Picks Business over Buddies

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2014

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As the Games in Sochi approach, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White. But you might notice that the snowboarding superstar, now 27, looks a little bit different these days.

With his shockingly short haircut, polished presence and streamlined sponsorship portfolio, White is putting a mature and business-like foot forward. While the image is in direct contrast to the unbuttoned, crazy-haired, partier persona of Olympics past, it’s a natural transition. After all, White has come a long way since he was a 19-year-old phenom who was taking the 2006 Games by storm.

White celebrating a gold medal in Torino.
White celebrating a gold medal in Torino.Elsa/Getty Images

He is now a pop-culture celebrity and a sports icon. He has his own line at Target and an upcoming NBC prime-time special, and he has dominated the Summer and Winter X Games. Though he is never satisfied, as is the case with most legendary athletes, he’s accomplished more in his lifetime already than most could even dream of.

But now, on the backbone of all that success, he’s trying to set himself up as a business mogul and a rock star, in addition to a two-time Olympic champion. This year in Sochi, White is going for two gold medals: in his main event, half-pipe, and a new event added to these Games, slopestyle.

Those goals would seem far-fetched for most people, but for White, they’re simply the natural progression of a journey into notoriety that started when he was just a child.

White was born into a middle-class family in San Diego. He was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot, which led him to have two open-heart operations before he was one year old. But once he was fully healthy, he began following his older brother Jesse around wherever he went—which was first to the skate park and then to the slopes.

White was a prodigy from the start, and his supportive family encouraged his talent, taking him around to competitions in their van and parking at the bottom of resort mountains so that he could go up and practice first thing in the morning.

The persistence paid off.

By the time he was seven, he had his first sponsor, Burton. By the time he was nine, pro skateboarder Tony Hawk had already decided to be his mentor. He turned pro as a snowboarder at the age of 13 and as a skateboarder when he was 17. 

The medals and prestige quickly piled up for White. The friends, however, did not. Extreme sports are very buddy-buddy, as athletes are often bonded together by brotherhood (or sisterhood) of insanity tied in with the sport they devote their lives to.

But White has never quite fit into the clique. In fact, he’s often eschewed it altogether.

As reported by Elizabeth Weil for The New York Times Magazine earlier this month, he blames it on jealousy, while others feel he’s giving his competitors the cold shoulder:

The story that White tells himself is that he never clicked with the other snowboarders because nobody likes the kid who always wins. Many riders see it differently. They resented White for snubbing them, not even pretending they were all friends, an attitude that is central to snowboarding’s self-concept. ‘He didn’t hang out with them,’ [Dave Finger, Digital Media Director of the X Games] says. ‘He didn’t show any of that camaraderie, stoking each other out, knuckle-bumping and high-fiving. He’d just show up and then win and then leave.’

This persona as an outsider in the snowboarding world has continued to follow him throughout his career, and while it was an issue when he was a teenager who was beating everyone in sight, it’s only gotten worse as his mainstream popularity has skyrocketed.

In 2010, he received a lot of criticism from his peers when his sponsor Red Bull built him a private half-pipe in his backyard and he refused to share it with his teammates. He was determined to hold on tightly to whatever edge it gave him, and this only further alienated him from his competitors.

Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris talked to The Globe and Mail about the snowboarding community’s growing frustration with White in 2011: “He could definitely represent snowboarding better. Just be way more cool. He’s so lame. He’s on his own page, he doesn’t hang out with anybody but himself.”

Shaun White in Vancouver
Shaun White in VancouverGerry Broome/Associated Press

While most would think that White’s overwhelming popularity would be good for snowboarding, it turns out that most in that community don’t want the face of their sport to be a buttoned-down loner who has his own line of clothing at Target. After all, extreme sports are supposed to be about stepping outside of the box, not owning the box and everything inside of it, which White seems to do.

White understands all of this, but it hasn’t stopped him from moving forward with his vision of what his career should be.

Since we last saw him in Vancouver, he has made a few very significant changes. He has streamlined his business ventures into one corporation, Shaun White Enterprises. He now has the final say on everything from publicity photos to skateboard-deck designs to fashion. And his mother is no longer in charge like she was at the 2010 Olympics—he has hired Keith Yokomoto, a COO with extensive experience, to run things.

Then, of course, there was the haircut heard around the world. White claims that he didn’t put any thought into the move, posting a video on YouTube of the entire so-called-spontaneous experience, but it’s impossible not to see the symbolic nature of transitioning from a wild-haired extreme sports star to a sleek businessman in the lead-up to his third Olympic Games.

For someone as calculated as White is, it’s hard to imagine that he didn't plan it.

As for friends, well, he’s working on that too. As if he didn’t have enough to juggle with his skateboarding and snowboarding careers, White now has a band, “Bad Things,” that is signed by Warner Brothers and releasing an album this month. However, he is not the frontman, as many have assumed. With this venture, he likes to think of himself as just one of the guys.

When talking to Rembert Browne of Grantland last year after his band opened at Lollapalooza, White revealed that he travels with the members in a 15-passenger van and stays with them at cheap motels when they’re on the road. He told Browne he decided to do things that way because, “I really felt like it was important, because it makes the band a tighter group.”

His bandmates told Browne that White's celebrity was far from a distraction for the group. "But people occasionally think, ‘Oh it’s Shaun, it’s his project, this is some sort of premeditated thing,’ and it’s not like that," lead singer Davis LeDuke said. "He just loves music, it’s another one of his passions like snowboarding is, like skateboarding is.”

As White has grown up, he's become more comfortable with his life as a snowboarding outsider and has felt secure in exploring his passions for music and business. And, as Weil notes, he's also making a conscious effort to be nicer to people and to do things—like the band—that aren't 100 percent about him. Of course, that's difficult to do when he's constantly surrounded by people that he's paying. 

But throughout this process, there have been some hiccups along the way, most notably his arrest for vandalism and public intoxication back in the fall of 2012. With his mugshot plastered all over the Internet, White issued a public statement, apologizing for the "inconvenience it caused my family, friends, business partners, the hotel and their guests."

But between the setbacks and the successes, it’s important to note that White hasn’t lost sight of his Olympic dream. This weekend in the Grand Prix in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., he officially qualified for the Sochi team in both slopestyle and half-pipe.

It wasn’t easy, though. On Thursday during his second slopestyle run, he suffered a bad crash. He sat out the rest of the day, and even missed the qualifying runs on Friday morning. But, in typical Shaun White style, he bounced back effortlessly, taking first place in slopestyle and in half-pipe qualifiers.

He’s now the favorite for a third straight gold medal in Sochi on the half-pipe and is in contention for the top of the slopestyle podium as well. Though he's been busy over the past four years, he's still put in all of the time necessary to perfect his craft. 

Even though White has become a more well-rounded guy in the last few years, winning and greatness are still the biggest parts of his brand. And thanks to his dedication and talent, both of those things should be on abundant display in Sochi.