There comes a time in every man's life when he looks in the mirror and sees something different. He sees someone different.
His face looks weathered and worn. His eyes look tired, maybe even sullen, definitely bruised. His hair looks shorter, more grown up. More professional.
When a man—any man, but in this case, let's call him Olympic champion Shaun White—looks in the mirror and sees how his face has changed over the years, it has to make him wonder if he can still be the same man he used to be.
Is it possible? Is it possible to be the same person you were a decade ago, with all the things in life you've experienced? With all the wisdom you've gained from getting older?
Can you look in that mirror and convince yourself you can do the things you never thought twice about doing before? At some point in your life, you thrived on doing the impossible, on proving everyone wrong when they said the things you could imagine were not feasible. Can you continue—with all you know and all you've learned and seen and experienced and lived—to be the same? To be fearless?
Can you do it all when everyone else wants you to fail? When your own teammates revel in your failure? At what point do you start to wonder what you have left to prove?
Danny Davis on Shaun White: "Fourth was a gift, man." Damn.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) February 11, 2014
It's more than just being the same, really. It's about being better. When you have a 15-year-old tweeting that you stole his spot at the Olympics before you dropped out of the slopestyle event, you have to be better. Better than the teenager, better than the riders from Canada who called you chicken and better than Danny Freaking Davis, who, whatever you think of White and their rivalry over the years, has proven to be the worst teammate imaginable.
Every day had to be about being better than the day before, than the year before, than the career achievement before.
White had to be better. And in the halfpipe finals in Sochi, he flat out wasn't.
The shame is that White did record the best score of the day, just in the wrong round. White had the top mark in the qualifying round, posting a score of 95.75 in his first run, besting the field by more than three points and advancing him straight through to the finals.
The 95.75 would have beaten eventual gold medalist Iouri Podladtchikov of Switzerland in the finals, too. Podladtchikov's second run of 94.75 was the top score of the finals, while White's 90.25 was only good for a distant fourth.
It was all there for White. The last rider of the night, he knew the score he had to get, but he just wasn't able to finish the run as smoothly as we've become accustomed to him doing at big events.
White had to put all the experience and all the wisdom to work for him during his finals run in Sochi, while somehow leaving all the distractions—all the fears from that creep in from experience—at the top of the hill.
In advance of the downhill run, White sat down with NBC for a piece that chronicled his career over the last few years, stemming from the horrific crash that sent him to the hospital.
"It's hard to show up at the mountain and have somebody go, 'Are you ready to do this trick?' when the first time you tried it put you in the hospital," White said during the piece.
"I talk in my interviews about the dangers and this and that. I'm just intimidated."
That quote was from a few months ago, and White clearly overcame that intimidation to qualify for the Olympics and get through to the finals. For White to pull off the kinds of moves he did during the halfpipe competition in Sochi, he certainly triumphed over those doubts.
But the wobbles on the landings. The crash during the first run. Was it the halfpipe, or was it the fears? The 23-year-old in Vancouver sticks those landings. The teenager back in Turin doesn't let the past creep in.
And yet, those riders didn't have the same experiences as White does now. A black eye and a bum wrist kept him out of the slopestyle after he felt the course was too dangerous, leaving him to focus on the halfpipe.
Would the younger White have done that? Four years ago, White almost decapitated himself during an X Games halfpipe run just days before the Vancouver Olympics, but he strapped his helmet back on and won both events.
Maybe being older and wiser isn't such a good thing.
Shaun White: "I need a little break from snowboarding for a while." Says he's going to go on tour with his band.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) February 11, 2014
Even without a medal in Sochi, it has been an amazing ride for White, from X Games wunderkind to Olympic gold medalist, global and cultural icon and brand name. Seriously, go to the "About" page of White's personal website. You can navigate to the left to read about the guy and to the right to learn about the brand.
Shaun White is a brand. Tell that to the wild-haired kid from a decade ago.
In many ways, White's success over the last decade—the success that grew his global brand into what it is today—is what separates him from the rest of the snowboarding community. All we've heard all week leading up to the halfpipe competition was how White doesn't care about the sport anymore. White isn't looking to grow the insular world of snowboarding as much as his own brand name.
If you listen to the elite riders in the sport, it would sound like White is yesterday's news, a rider whose time in the sport has passed. White had a chance to prove them all wrong. Standing at the top of the mountain, White was the last rider with a chance to do something nobody in the history of the sport has done before: win a third Olympic gold medal.
In his first run of the finals on Tuesday, White got incredible air out of the pipe, crossing the five-meter mark that no other competitor could do, but failed to land his third hit cleanly, then smacked the deck as he entered the pipe on his fifth, setting up incredible drama for his final run.
There was no victory lap for White like he had in Vancouver, winning the gold with the score on his first run four years ago. White needed to go out in his second run and win it.
He needed to prove something.
And he couldn't do it.
Maybe it was the distractions of being a brand. Maybe it was the fear creeping in from all the experiences those younger, less seasoned riders don't have. Or maybe the other riders have finally caught up to him.
Maybe, when he looks in the mirror, he'll see that time is starting to as well.