PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Shaun White’s face is flushed red and his right hand is covering his mouth and he’s sobbing and walking and emitting guttural cries—"Aaaah!"—while he gasps for air and repeats the words, "Oh my god," over and over.
White walks over to his mother, Cathy, and wraps her in a hug. "I did it," he says, and then he continues to sob on her shoulder, his body shaking in that white jacket and matching snow pants. "I f—ing did it."
The embrace is long and when he lets go, White makes his way to a crowd of friends and family. He jumps up and down while yelling, he’s lifted in the air, and there are more hugs and tears. When he’s done celebrating he watches his final run, courtesy of NBC, and he brings a fist to his face and bites his index finger. Then his eyes well up again.
White did it, and for the record third time. The American who put halfpipe snowboarding on the map is again an Olympic gold medallist, the first snowboarder to win three. He won in White fashion, too, high on drama, waiting until the very last run of the day to pull himself from second into first after nailing a back-to-back 1440 combination he’d tried for the first time just minutes earlier.
When his score of 97.75 out of 100 popped up onto the screen, putting him ahead of teenaged Japanese superstar Ayamu Hirano, White threw his hands up, he fell to his knees, and he began to sob while the crowd chanted, "USA! USA!"
"I don’t think you could ever forget this day in the sport of snowboarding," he said, later. "I’m proud that I’m on top. I don’t say that often about myself, I try to stay hungry for that next win, but I’m changing my ways.
"I’m really proud of myself."
— CBC Olympics (@CBCOlympics) February 14, 2018
Before White won this third Olympic gold medal, the 100th in American history, he was already the greatest of all time. On Day 5 here, he put a punctuation on it.
White sure was the crowd favourite, beyond your usual flag-waving and "USA!" chants. The fan adoration for the 31-year-old is jaw-dropping. It is Boy Band level, and it cuts across all ages and genders, rendering women in their 30s screaming and older dudes clamoring for pictures. You could mistake the scene for a Katy Perry concert.
At least a hundred fans waited more than an hour in the cold, just for the chance to touch White’s face (yes, people did this), get a selfie, hug him or get his autograph. And he complied, happily. One woman got her oversized glamour shot poster of him signed, she screamed about it, and as he walked away she declared this Valentine’s Day "The best day of my life!" Seriously. She did get a selfie, too. Fans had large pictures of his face on sticks. A couple women wore tiaras that said "I (picture of a heart) Shaun."
You couldn’t help but wonder whether these fans, in particular those who "heart" Shaun, knew about what happened in August of 2016, when a sexual harassment lawsuit was filed against him. The former drummer of White’s band, Bad Things, Lena Zawaideh, alleged he sent profane pictures to her, that he made vulgar remarks, that he told her to dress more provocatively, that he forced her to watch sexually disturbing videos. White admitted to sending the inappropriate texts, but he maintains the other allegations aren’t true. The two parties settled last May.
Certainly his reputation should have taken a hit, but you would never know it, not today. Maybe they didn’t know. Worse, maybe they didn’t care. Or maybe they wanted to celebrate White for his skill on snow, not his character off of it.
What’s without question is that White pulled off the remarkable on this Pyeongchang superpipe. He chose the Olympic final to try back-to-back 1440s for the first time, ever. His second run in finals was his first-ever attempt. Coach J.J. Thomas had a sensible explanation as to why White didn’t practice it before: "Frankly, it’s dangerous."
He hit it in his second run, but "stomped it," as Thomas put it, in his third and final. White made his way through a barrage of media and he had been through a good 20 interviews already, but he was still glowing as he recalled how he felt before that run, talking with the same vigor, like he’d never told this story before in his life.
"I’m standing at the top, Ayumu put in this amazing run and I knew I needed that last run and it was like, this overwhelming feeling of, ‘I know I can do it and I know I’m going to do it but I just gotta do it.’ You know?" he said. "I found myself in this position that I love and I’m so proud that this happens to me in this situation, but I do better when the pressure’s on and I’m standing at the top, one run to go, the world’s watching, my whole family’s here, everybody’s cheering for me. And I just put it down."
White is incredibly good at being a celebrity. He should be, considering he’s been a professional since age 13. He’s had parts in movies, video games named after him, he hangs out with super models, and one of his sponsors built him his own personal halfpipe. Earlier this week, he made news when he ate a $920 "Flying Tomato" hamburger that was named after him.
On Wednesday, after his first run, which put him in first place with two to go, White grabbed his black helmet off his head and he tossed it into the crowd and yelled. On his second run, White fell, and then while at the bottom of the pipe, he looked at the camera and said: "One more run." Friends and family repeated "one more run" as he slid by on the lift, a determined look on his face, nodding his head and narrowing his eyes. It was as though he was heading into the ring.
To keep the nerves down, White took a whole bunch of round trips on that chair lift. When Hirano fell on his third run, the door was open. White needed to score higher than 95.25.
In his post-race interview, he kept bringing the conversation back to his experience in Sochi, when he ultimately came a disappointing fourth in his bid to win a third straight Olympic title. "It’s awful to admit," he said, but he wasn’t motivated.
"I live these dual lives of being this normal guy in LA and hanging out and playing movies with friends—I’m a good friend, I’ll help you move your furniture into the house," he said, which is an interesting aside. "I’ve never really had the time to just enjoy the simple things in life, and that was really tormenting me during the run-up to Sochi, I was just flipping through the feed of everybody’s birthdays and everything I was missing out on."
White kept talking for another two minutes at least, ever the showman, laughing at his own jokes, talking about how his family started calling him "Mr. Perfect" after he scored a perfect 100 not long ago. But basically the crux of his point was he felt he had to fall in love with snowboarding again after the last Olympics. He got a new coach, he started working out for the first time in his life, he started to love it again. He had a massive crash late last year during training—he needed 62 stitches in his face, and there’s plenty of evidence of that, including a scar on his nose—but he returned to action, and here he was.
"Then I did the same trick that put me in the hospital to win the Olympics," he said, grinning. "It was a true emotional trip."
Later, he held court at a press conference, sitting alone at the table. Hirano and James are long gone, because it’s taken a while to get to this point, for all the pageantry that comes with White. He’s asked how agonizing it was to wait at the top of the hill before his final gold-medal winning run.
"It was an eternity," he said, laughing. "I was sitting there waiting for my score and it’s tough, you know, I can’t help but think sometimes when I go out and ride, I’m expected to be the best and the greatest in the sport, and I’m expected to do these flawless runs, perfect 100 scores, almost perfect score in qualifiers, and I can’t help but wonder if they’re going to knit pick my run because of that…
"Sometimes I feel like I can be scored against myself, because they’ve seen me my entire career at my greatest moments, you know, like, ‘I’ve seen him do that trick better.’"
No, White doesn’t lack in the confidence department. "I had to dig deep for this one," he added. "Getting that score at the end was so overwhelming. I was just crippled with joy, and [it] means the world to me."
White broke down each element of that gold-medal winning run, then he smacked his hands on the table in front of him and grinned.
"Done," he said, before walking out of the room, entourage in tow. "And I won."