The Flying Tomato, The Great One, whatever you call him, the Olympic Snowboarding gold medal winner Shaun White is in New York City on a press tear. With Regis and Kelly in the morning and Larry King at night, what better place to drop by during the day than the PAPER offices? You know it!
With the closing ceremony around the corner, he's still not sure if he'll make it back. From Europe to Asia and beyond, everyone wants a piece of the rockin' redhead and he's happy to give it to them. He next competes in Vermont at the Burton U.S. Open and after that it's back on the boards -- surf and skate, that is.
Voluble, easy-going and totally laid back, we hung with the dude of dudes and talked about everything from the Olympics to AC/DC to custom curtains.
David Hershkovits: So how do you like New York?
Shaun White: Oh, I love it here.
SW: I used to hate coming to the city when I was younger. I didnât get it. I was like 13. It was always cold and people were out and about doing their own thing. After the Olympics, when I was 19, I came out here, and it was the best time ever. I would go out and do social things. It was fun. There's so much to do. The same thing happened to me in Paris. I couldn't stand France, and then I realized this place was amazing. You can go out to a dinner at like 2 a.m., and bring your dog. It's amazing food, and then you go out after.
DH: They love dogs. That's one the cool thing about Paris; you can bring your dog anywhere.
SW: Yeah, and instead of getting mad about how it's taking three hours to get my pasta, you realize the whole culture is built around [this idea of] let's get a drink.
DH: So what do you like best about the Olympics?
SW: Just the magnitude, it's such a big event. It's the only snowboarding event that you're on such a massive world stage. I won the medal and I was mentioned in speeches from Obama talking about my riding and my training and this and that. It was bizarre.
DH: Did you meet him yet?
SW: No, I'd love to. I think it's probably in the works somewhere.
But, yeah it's such a cool thing. And, it's the only thing that happens where it's a team thing. We're such individuals. I ride at this mountain, and I wear what I want to wear, and I do these events. This is the only time you're actually on a team; you're part of the U.S. team.
DH: Did you wind up rooming with somebody and doing that whole thing?
SW: Yeah, for a little bit. I had actually learned from the
last time that the athlete lodge is nice but it's not optimal.
DH: You don't have to stay there.
SW: Yeah, you don't have to be there. So I stayed there for the first three nights with the guys, so the three of us shared one space. After that I went to my own house [to decompress]. I was trying to play it down in my mind because if you think about [the Olympics] and keep building it up it won't help you any. You know, 'It's any other contest. Here we are.'
DH: Right, but it's not.
SW: Yeah, not in the slightest.
DH: I think [Apolo Anton] Ohno was saying that he had to go stay somewhere else, because he couldn't sleep.
SW: Well, it's hard, yeah. It's not the normal food you're used to. It's definitely... it's just different. I think probably Apolo or myself, you go in there and you already have a bit of a name going in there. So, you're signing stuff at dinner, you're taking photos all the time ,which is fine. But after a while you're like, 'It's been three days in this gauntlet so I gotta go do my own thing.' But we lucked out because Canada's got some amazing houses around that city so we just got this awesome place by the water. I don't think I enjoyed myself as much last time. It's just cool because the second time around was sweet and I knew what to expect.
DH: When you walk in for the opening ceremony, do you have to wear the official uniform?
SW: Well, you're part of the team, so you wear the U.S. gear. And you know, you're proud to. It's got flags on it, and you're walking through the city.
Burton made the half-pipe uniforms. There are opening ceremony outfits, closing ceremony outfits, podium outfits, Burton competitive outfits, it goes on and on. It's just so much stuff.
But, yeah, I was proud to wear the gear. I was like the dad, the father figure because I had been to the Olympics before; the other two guys, it was their first game, and they're like, 'What do we do now. Where do we go?'
DH: What did you tell them?
SW: I basically explained to them what was going to go on. They wanted to know what it was going to be like to drop into the half-pipe -- 'Are things gonna feel different, are things gonna look different?' They were just curious about whether there's extra pressure. I tried to downplay it for them. I'm like, 'no, no.' But it's such a cool thing to just go the Olympics and explain what it's like. As you guys can imagine, there are so many people who don't even get to contemplate what that's like, to go put on the gear, and get from one end of the Village to the other, and the shuttles and 20 different security checks. You're basically like a piece of luggage almost. Your credential is like this big. You have to have it everywhere. They're like, 'Oh, you're a snowboarder, you get sorted to this bus.'
The best part is it makes everything from the beginning mean so much -- you know what I'm saying? When I first got into the sport there wasn't the Olympics [for snowboarding]. X Games had probably just started and there's no money in the sport. There wasn't much going on. But, I love the sport. And, my parents were like, 'He's good at it. Let's see what happens.' And, from my parents calling in sick to work, and having all this drama with my teachers and certain doctors, because I've had heart conditions since I was really young.
DH: At birth, right?
SW: Yeah, I had a couple of open-heart surgeries. So, from that my parents were just like, 'I don't even know if we should let him walk down the street.' And they had to take a step back and say, 'he's gonna live his life and whatever.' I got knocked out when I was really young, at 11. I broke my hand and my foot and fractured my skull. And they said, 'You know, it was a freak accident, so let's let him get back out there and do it.' There were so many parents' letters that came to the house that were like, 'Are you crazy!'
And then there was me missing some school time. I had a teacher, and I would do work on the road sometimes. I bought a house when I was 16 north of where I lived just because I could qualify for a different school district. The school I was at didn't recognize my sport as being legitimate. You're like, 'geez what do we do,' and they were like 'well if you play tennis, or ice dancing, or horseback riding...' So yeah there were a bunch of crazy hurdles to get through, and then you run into all these people who watch the Olympics, they're like 'wow, I can't even fathom that you were the monster kid chopping down my rosebushes skateboarding and now you're on television at the Olympics.' So it's such an emotional event, and there's tears.
DH: It was a long hike to get there definitely.
SW: Yeah, and I mean I think a lot of people were just like,
'wow, you're really good at these tricks! What's the magical thing that
makes you better than a lot of the other guys, or at least ride well at
these events?' And I just had this crazy idea to practice a certain way
and to take the time to plan what I wanted to do; it didn't just happen.
There's crash after crash. I had a torn ligament in my thumb, I'm like
three days out of surgery and I'm at this half-pipe like 'okay, here we
go!' You know what I mean? And I'm landing in the foam pit like this,
like I'll crawl out, one arm out, I can't use my hand... But it was such a
mission to invent new tricks and do all this. That's why, like, I woke
up this morning and was like 'I did it!' Like it still hasn't sunk in.
DH: What do you do to clear that space around your mind? Is there any preparation in terms of music, or anything you like to do?
SW: There are a lot of things like just getting a good, solid practice run. You feel warmed up, you feel like you're ready to go. The music thing is so amazing. It's such a necessity to be there and hear something. It takes that silence, and that whole pressure away. Your favorite song comes on, and you're like, 'It's not so bad.' It totally takes you out of that element.
DH: So do you have music when you're up there?
SW: I don't actually ride like that. All the other guys have headphones in, but I don't really like it. I wouldn't want to crash to my favorite song. It's definitely strange, if you ride and a headphone pops out. Plus, everyone wants to talk to me, so I'm taking them in and out. I actually just put the phone in my pocket and play it through my pants. Plus, there's music that usually plays at the top of the half-pipe that you request.
DH: What did you request?
SW: They played Guns 'N Roses when I dropped in. I think "Paradise City." The last time around I had to hear a certain song. This time they knew I just wanted to hear a random rock song.
DH: What was it the last time, do you remember?
SW: Last time it was "Back in Black," the AC/DC song. They were like, 'what do you want to hear at this first event?' And, I'm like, 'Yeah, let's do that song. Rock it out.' And then, the next time they asked, I said, 'you might as well play the same song again.' And I won again! Every single time that song came on I was like a horse at the start gate, ready to go. And, the same thing would happen: I'd drop in, post a big score and win. It was this awesome thing, so every time I hear that song it puts me back into that state.
DH: You mentioned hanging out. But, you've been criticized a little bit. There was an article in the New York Times about how you don't hang out, and the culture is very hang-out oriented. That's probably a space that's a little harder to negotiate than a half-pipe.
SW: It's always been strange. Ever since I was young I remember being on my own. I went pro at 13 and as much as the guys on the road were my friends, they were in their 20s. They would go out and I would stay in and watch cartoons and play video games. Even when I got a bit older, I'd win the contest and I couldn't get the award because it was in a bar. It was tough. I was always on my own. Even with the kids my age, it wasn't that I didn't want to hang out with them. I love to hang. But it always seemed like weird air would come up between us. I would do well at the event, and I mean, I'm such a competitive person that I understand -- if you and I are competing together and I didn't do as well as I had liked to, and that happens all the time, where I don't do as well and I'm pissed, I'm mad. I don't want to hang with the guys. So it's always been strange. It's not like everybody after the Superbowl is like [to the other team], 'Alright cool, we won! Let's go out tonight.' I'm a strange person. I don't like to sink myself too far into the sport. I like to not separate myself. Just be on a come and go basis with it. Like my friends are all musicians and they have normal jobs, or are actors, mostly musicians because I play guitar and I love talking about that. It's not like you want to go home and somebody's going to talk to you about other articles.
DH: Right, something different.
SW: You want to go home and talk about the new movie or whatever. I've never been the one to sit and watch videos of snowboarding all day and night. I enjoy them. I respect them. I love it. But I just can't do it. I rather go do the sport. It's one of those things where I get frustrated; I'm like 'I want to go do that!' I think it keeps it fresh. It's fun for me that way.
DH: America didn't do that well in women's snowboarding. People I know were saying that maybe the girls are a little more laid back, not as competitive and didn't take it as seriously as the guys. Do you feel if you were training them you could get them up on their snowboarding?
SW: Ha, the Shaun White program. Um, I'm not sure. It's always hard to say. Who knows, maybe they just had a bad day. It's hard to judge a person off of one day. I was so not nervous, but just trying to wrap my head around the fact that a lot of people were just going to basically judge my whole performance and career off of one day. Some days you just can't do it. Some days things don't work. I'm sure they were trying their best and landed good runs. I know the girl who did win [Torah Bright] is very talented. She's extremely good. She was doing tricks that I can't do! I got to the half-pipe at Breckinridge after the Mountain Dew tour last season and she was there doing "Switchback Sevens" and I couldn't even do a "Switchback.' I was like, 'This is so embarrassing.' Then I freaked out and learned "Switchback Nines." She's really talented, I knew it was between her and Kelly Clark; she's really talented as well.
DH: Do you think boarding culture is in danger of losing its edge now that it's becoming such a part of mainstream culture?
SW: I think it's still got its edge. We're still pretty wild guys in a way, it's just on a bigger scale.
DH: A professional has to be really focused, totally on.
SW: I think it's just changed a bit. You've got guys that know there's a future in it, whereas back in the days you had guys that thought, 'This is it. There's no money. This is what we do.' And the mentality was totally different. I think the best part about it is that for every action there's a reaction, and the reaction is that there's more money in it. And there are 22-foot half-pipes now, when basically before we weren't even allowed to ride on the mountains. A guy that's out of school that's trying to become a professional snowboarder, and he's 16 or 17, can be making six figures at a sport that he did for fun. It's amazing to see. We have these massive companies that are now in the sport and are changing things. I mean towns in Oregon compete for who has the best skate park. It's wild to think of where it started and where it's at now, and the facilities. You see it's becoming more accessible to people instead of before we were fighting for our rights to just have access to the mountains.
DH: Especially the skateboarder, you're considered the rebel.
SW: Yeah, there are skate parks now and you can go hang. The mountains obviously saw a big change in ticket sales because of the fact that if mom and dad want to go ski, the kids want to go snowboarding. The parks have changed, and the mountains have changed. It's just wild times. But, I think there's still a bit of edge in the sport, especially in skateboarding.
DH: Are you still going to compete in that as well?
SW: Oh, I love skateboarding. Even if I didn't compete, I'd
still do it. I always have. It's fulfilling, it's fun. I'll go out
there, I'll be in business meetings talking about Target clothing lines
and video games, and all this stuff I've been working hard on, and
that's my release. I go skate. I go for four hours; it's fun for me.
DH: You just get up and go out the door; you don't have to go up in a mountain anywhere.
SW: Yeah, totally. But, I almost lost my mind this summer because the Olympics were coming up and there was so much going on. But, I chipped a bone in my ankle landing in a foam pit. I crash on wall, but I get hurt in a foam pit.
DH: You don't want to tell anybody that.
SW: Yeah, it's like this pillow hit me and I was really wounded by it. So I ended up taking the skate season off. And it was such a hard thing to do, just sitting there watching X Games.
DH: You think you'll be back in there?
SW: Oh, yeah, for sure, I've already got plans.
DH: Are you still inventing new tricks?
SW: Yeah, within the sport of snowboarding, it's been wild so far. I've invented a couple new tricks in skateboarding which have been wild, impressive. There are more options with skateboarding.
DH: Are there really?
SW: Well, your board's not attached to you. So you do the same flip or the same spin, but you take the board and flip it. You can change your stuff around a ton, whereas snowboarding is more limited because instead of flipping the board we just add another flip in the air, or we grab differently, or twist different. But, that's the best part; I'm dying to go skateboarding. By the time summer's gonna end, I'll wanna get back on a snowboard. I'll be excited to do it again. If I have time to go do something I go surf or skate because that's what I haven't done.
DH: Target is one of your sponsors. What are you doing with them?
SW: It's amazing, we just introduced shoes to the line, which was a really cool thing cause we're cruising through the store and looking at the shoe selection and we were like 'uhh...' I definitely felt like we could add some flavor to it, not that it was totally plummeting before, but obviously having something new in there is always cool, and it's just been a blast. Still, you have to have a mixture obviously because when I was a kid if anything had a skull on it or a dinosaur I'd have to have it, so we do stuff like that but then there's a lot of different things that go into it. Not only like jackets and pants and the fits that go in there. It's just been amazing.
A lot of people assume that I just woke up and I was like 'I need a video game or a clothing line!' But it all happened so naturally. My brother and I had been making stuff for the White collection at Burton, and it was jackets and pants and beanies and gloves and all this stuff, and then we got a chance to make the clothing at Target. At the beginning we were worried because they wanted me to ride for Target clothes, and we were like that's just not gonna work. The whole idea came up because the stuff with Burton was doing so well, and we wanted to take our shot at actual street apparel because you don't have to weatherproof it. You don't have to waterproof a T-shirt, you know what I mean? With Burton it's so hard because it's such a quality, high-end brand, and what's great about Target is that they're so massive that we can do high quality pieces in there but put them at a more affordable price. I put my dog on a T-shirt. We were at home and we put the sunglasses on him, snapped a photo, put it on a T-shirt, and it was like our second best seller. So these kids are running around and I'm like, 'That's my dog on your shirt,' this little French bulldog... but yeah, it means a lot to me. Who would have thought that coming to Target would give me the right of approval over a whole line of product that goes into the store. It makes you authentic.
DH: Do you like to shop?
SW: I did the line at Target and I was actually able to go shopping. I'd never gone shopping in my life; I'd been sponsored since I was seven. I would walk through a warehouse and be like, 'yeah, that fits me, cool! I like this shirt, cool, four of them.' So I was blown away to go into a store, I was so in shock when they were like, 'the dressing room is right there.' I was like, 'really? You won't let me just try the pants on right here, like are you sure?' It was like learning to ride a bicycle or something like that in your twenties. And so I've been able to like go out and buy things since I'm a designer for Target, like this a V-neck from our line. And I love wearing the gear but it was cool to actually go out and buy pieces and get ideas for different pockets and jackets.
I bought this [leather jacket ]when I was here last time at this rock 'n' roll store down the way; it's like a forties jacket like somebody already slept in a dumpster for me, put the mileage in it. That's the best part about traveling, I'll be able to pick something up in Japan, and they'll be like 'where'd you get that?' Like the woman was complimenting me on my hat, like, 'where'd you buy it?' I was like, 'Moscow.' But this ring is probably my favorite thing, I got it at a store in LA, it's a pistol...
DH: Do you still live in San Diego?
SW: I have a house down south, in Rancho Santa Fe, the one I bought when I was 16 after won the Olympics. It's been cool, but I was young and I made the mistake of buying a massive house that's on three acres with this giant garage and there's like seven rooms and you're just like... I can't stand the place. You just go in there and it's like this giant empty house, and I bought it empty and I was like, 'now I gotta fill it,' and I just didn't know. I didn't know that in a house this size you need custom curtains, and custom curtains take this long to order, and then they show up in the wrong color and you're like, 'aggghh.' I'm gone all the time. They say it's gonna be done in a week and then six months later I come home and it's like what is the deal? I come home and like the workers left their In 'N' Out burger stuff and I'm like, 'how long has that been there?!'
So it was definitely a nightmare, one of the hardest things in my life to actually be in a home on my own. I totally should've just gotten like a little apartment cause the next thing you know, there are gardeners and there are pool guys and there are pool-house guys and there's so much going on. Like the neighbor calls and they're like, "The pool overflowed cause somebody left the pump on!' And I'm like, 'Who's there? I mean I can't really...' It was really frustrating to have the place.
I just bought a home in L.A. and it's perfect. It's small. You get in that thing where you're like, 'I work hard, why don't I get this place on the cliff!' Something out there like that but it's not what you really need. You realize that the people who own these homes that have like 20 rooms in them, they all hang out in the living room and the kitchen just like everyone else. They're not like, 'It's 12, I'm gonna go visit the other room now,' they all kick it in the same zone. But I can't say it was a total nightmare. I had a blast there, we had parties and stuff, Halloween... People say my new place suits my lifestyle much more. That's why I've always wanted a place in New York, you just turn the key, don't have to deal with a garden or anything. I'm much happier now with this new set-up, and the place in Colorado is awesome, it's right by the run. Only bummer is that the Cat guy comes by every night to groom the run, I'm like, 'dude. Really, man? Come on.'
Photos by Monica LoCascio