Shaun White, clad entirely in black, extended his years-long dominance in the snowboard halfpipe in Colorado’s high country on the weekend, besting rivals as the sport’s most famous athlete aims for the 2014 Olympics in Russia.
White, delivering all his biggest tricks, won the Dew Tour halfpipe competition at Breckenridge under a blue-bird sky on Saturday afternoon, the latest victory in a career that has transcended a sport White has propelled to the mainstream.
In the latest evolution for the 25-year-old from California, White rode without his usual Red Bull-emblazoned helmet, after parting ways in the summer with the heavyweight sponsor whose brand is omnipresent in all X-Games sports. It is the latest step in White’s ascent beyond snowboarding, dropping energy drink Red Bull while signing big-money deals with the likes of BFGoodrich tires.
White first began to burst beyond the world of snowboarding when he won gold in the halfpipe at the 2006 Turin Olympics, landing him on the cover of Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated.
His fame grew even greater after gold in Vancouver last year. White was the most-recognized athlete at the Games, where halfpipe was the No. 2-rated event on NBC, after hockey.
He earns upward of $10-million annually and this year was chosen the second most powerful athlete in Bloomberg Businessweek’s annual Power 100 rankings, launching from No. 51 before the Vancouver Games, and now ahead of the likes of Tiger Woods and trailing only Peyton Manning, the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback.
White’s turn in BFGoodrich commercials is emblematic of his ever-burgeoning fame and power.
“It’s something different, it’s something fun,” White said in an interview at the bottom of the Breckenridge halfpipe after he’d won.
White is less agile behind the wheel of a car than on a snowboard. Several years ago, he had a minor crash, when he drove his white Lamborghini into a tree.
“We went in [to BFGoodrich]and they’re like, ‘We’re going to turn you into a race car driver,’” White said. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t want to be a race car driver, I’m really bad at driving, so why don’t you guys just teach me how to drive race cars?’ So that became the ad campaign, watching how bad I’m at driving. My record’s not that sweet.”
Even in fashion, White carves his own style. He has for several years designed a signature White Collection for Burton Snowboards, the industry titan that first sponsored him when he was 7. While most riders still sport the traditional baggy clothing, White now dons tight black pants and a leather jacket when he pops mind-bending tricks in the halfpipe.
The idea started with his women’s line for Burton, and his predilection for tight jeans, popular with hipsters everywhere.
“We made women’s pants that were slimmer and as a joke I went out and was like, ‘I’m going to promote the women’s line.’ So I put them on: ‘Man, these kind of feel like my jeans, and I like it.’ Then I made the leather jacket and put the two together.”
Though White continues to dominate halfpipe, he has faded badly in slopestyle, an event that makes its debut in 2014 Olympics and which most closely resembles actual snowboarding, as riders perform tricks on a series of jumps and rails. White dominated slopestyle for years, even more so than the halfpipe.
But White has been left behind by a bevy of young riders and their unbelievable tricks. The group is led by two Canadian teenagers, Sebastien Toutant, 19, from the Montreal suburb of L’Assomption, and Mark McMorris, 18, from Regina. White failed to qualify for Sunday’s slopestyle final.
Toutant had a superb first run on Sunday but finished second, topped by Gjermund Braaten of Norway. McMorris finished seventh. Toutant and McMorris shot to prominence last January, when Toutant won slopestyle at X-Games in Aspen and McMorris was second.
White has saluted the rise of the Canadian teenagers in slopestyle – but at Breckenridge insisted he would return to the cadre of top riders, aiming for Sochi. “It’s put the fire to bring my jumps and slopestyle riding back to where it used to be,” he said.
White still commands huge respect among snowboarders but as his life beyond snowboarding eclipses his riding, younger stars question his commitment to the sport that made him famous.
“Shaun is just an unbelievable snowboarder,” McMorris said in an interview on Friday. “But 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. He’s a nice guy. But he has an air-and-style contest [the annual early December Oakley/Shaun White-branded event in Beijing]and he doesn’t even do it – how stupid is that? He’s done a lot, he’s got it in the mainstream media, he won the Olympics twice in a row, which is great, but he doesn’t do anything core in snowboarding.”