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They lined up at the bottom of Olympic Games halfpipe on a sundrenched freezing morning dusted with a coat of history and emotion, Swiss, Australian, Japanese, German riders, side by side, forming a sort of snowboard honor guard for the greatest to ever clip himself into a board.
Shaun White, the three-time Olympic champion, smiled and laughed as the other riders high-fived and embraced, but his eyes revealed his true emotions and the enormity of the moment.
Only moments before the other riders, one of whom, Australia’s Valentino Guseli, was only 10 months old when White won his first gold medal, stood transfixed on the top of the hill as White began his final Olympic run in fourth place, his rivals, like the rest of us, expecting him to take these Games on one last epic ride.
White opened big and hopeful with a 1440 and for a second, one last split-second, we were reminded of Olympics past, of Turin and Vancouver and most of all of PyeongChang four years ago.
But he fell on his second trick and the rest of the run became a lap of honor, a curtain call, White removing his helmet, acknowledging the fans, bidding the Olympics adieu as he eased down the pipe into retirement.
“The end,” he said to Switzerland’s Jan Scherrer, the eventual bronze medalist, at the bottom of the hill. “That’s it.”
Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, whose first name means “walk the dream,” clinched the gold medal in the final round at Genting Snow Park H&S Stadium.
But Friday morning (Thursday evening PST) will be best remembered as the day White, who over the course of a record-setting five edge-of-the-envelope Olympics revolutionized the Games and his sport, finally returned to earth.
White, 35, finished fourth at 85.00 points, 2.25 behind Scherrer, in a final Olympic appearance that only weeks ago seemed unlikely.
“Sorry you’re going to get me ugly crying here, but I’m not upset about the result,” he said. “I would have loved to put it down. I made it happen for two runs and I couldn’t hold on for the last. It’s hard for me not to get hung up on that last run, I wanted it so badly.
“I’m proud of the runs I put down, I’m proud to be here for my last goodbye. Just missed the podium, I would have loved to walk out there with everyone, for one last time but you can’t always get what you want, you get what you need.”
White might be the most transformative figure in the history of the Winter Olympics, dominating the competition and sucking the oxygen out of the Games much like Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps for 16 years. The San Diego native took a sport initially dismissed by Olympic purists as a novelty made up of a generation of Jeff Spicolis and landed it squarely on center stage at the Games right next to figure skating, surpassing alpine skiing.
“Everyone else who was riding today grew up, looking up to him as a huge idol,” Scherrer said. “When I was 15, he was just so much better than everyone else, and I feel he was probably the most dominant snowboard character in competition ever. He looks back on 20 years of riding at the highest level, and it was a huge pleasure to have him today in this competition.”
He was a godsend for the International Olympic Committee, desperate to connect with a younger audience amid dwindling ratings. But it wasn’t just teens that White reached. Americans got used to seeing White, his shock of red hair, wide smile, everywhere, on morning shows, on the couch of late-night talk shows, in films and at the mall. White even had his own clothing line with Target. At the peak of his career, he was earning $8 million in endorsement fees annually, according to Forbes.
But it wasn’t just White’s charisma and his SoCal cool that made the world sit up and take notice. His ability to take flight was comparable to Jordan and Beamon, Fosbury and Bubka.
“My riding speaks for itself,” White said. “I’ve always been trying to push and progress and do the next biggest thing and try to pick up on what trends are happening within the sport and be ahead of the curve. And I feel like I had a helping hand to inspire them (the riders).”
White was just 19 when he won his first gold medal at the 2006 Games in Turin. He repeated four years later in Vancouver.
“I’m most proud of staying on top of the sport that’s ever-changing for as long as I have done,” White said. “That’s legacy performance.”
But his greatest triumph came four years ago in South Korea, after a fourth-place finish in Sochi in 2014.
White trailed Hirano by a point going into the final run but clinched the gold by nailing back to back-to-back 1440s.
“That was the highlight of my career,” he said.
But some of the shine on White’s legacy was smudged even before his third gold medal was placed around his neck.
Lena Zawaideh, a former drummer in White’s rock band, filed a sexual harassment and breach of contract lawsuit against him in 2016, alleging White made inappropriate sexual comments to her and forced her to watch “sexually disturbing videos, including videos sexualizing human fecal matter.”
White and Zawaideh reached a settlement in 2017. The incident seemed closed. But White touched off a firestorm of criticism when he dismissed the allegations as “gossip” when asked about the suit during a press conference after the 2018 Olympic halfpipe competition. White later apologized for the comment.
Competing also became an increasingly bumpy ride.
An ankle injury forced him out of a qualifying event in Mammoth earlier this season, leaving his Olympic qualification in peril. He continued to have knee issues after undergoing surgery last summer and injured his back working out.
White was in Austria when he realized it was time to retire.
“On the chairlift ride, the mountain was closing and no one was around, and I was watching the sun go down, and it just hit me,” White recalled. “I was like, ‘This is it, these are the signs.’
“It was a very sad and surreal moment, but very joyous as well. I reflected on all the things I’ve done, and looked at that sunset going down, and I thought, ‘Next time I’m here I won’t be stressed about learning tricks. I won’t be worried about some kind of competition. I’ll just purely be here to enjoy the resort, maybe check out other runs besides the halfpipe for once.’
“I broke down a little, got very emotional and called friends and family, manager, and told them where I was at. They all agreed, ‘Hey, beautiful run. Let’s see what’s next.’”
He came to Beijing determined to enjoy every moment of this final Olympic experience. “My bonus round,” White said. He posed for selfies at the Opening Ceremony. “A little fan-girling action over here,” said Paula Moltzan, a U.S. alpine skier. And he crashed U.S. board cross rider Nick Baumgartner’s Facetime with his son and his friends, significantly increasing Baumgartner’s street cred at home.
“Their eyes lit up and they were blown away with this and to be able to bring that kind of joy and a superstar to my son is pretty cool as a parent,” Baumgartner said.
White was so busy trading pins afterward that he almost missed the bus back to the Olympic Village.
“The goal has been to just squeeze every bit of fun and excitement and joy out of this experience,” he said. “I’m having as much fun as I can.
“I really want to finish my career strongly on my own terms and put down some solid runs. If I could do that, I’ll be very happy.”
Going out in a fifth Olympic final was in jeopardy in Thursday’s qualifying round. He fell on the first of two runs but rebounded to finish the day in fourth place.
His first run Friday was solid if not spectacular, putting him in fourth at 72.00. White showed signs of his old self on a second run he punctuated with a fist pump. His 85.00 score moved him briefly into second before slipping to fourth by the end of the round.
And so the sport held its breath one more time as White headed into the halfpipe. With the opening 1440 he seemed headed to the medal podium a fourth time. But he couldn’t hold the landing on his second trick.
“I wish I could have landed my last run, but I was having some difficulty in my back leg for some reason, it was giving out on every run, I don’t know why,” White said. “Maybe it was the pressure, maybe it was just exhaustion.
“Really challenging, but that’s OK, that’s it, I’m done. I’m so thankful for my career, thankful to China for having us.
“It’s been a journey.”
And so he eased down the hill to the end of that journey, another medal having eluded him, his place in Olympic history secure.
“Shaun has been one of the biggest faces in snowboarding my whole life,” Guseli said, “and to see him dropping into his last Olympics it was really awesome to watch him one last time and when he got to the bottom I got a bit teary just to see the legacy that he’s leaving behind.
“I know he’ll always be with us. He’ll always be there.”
In the days and weeks ahead, the rawness of Thursday’s emotion will fade, and White will find peace and perspective.
“I don’t know how many kids really aspire to be a cowboy and get to be a cowboy,” he said earlier this week. “At a young age, snowboarding was what I wanted more than anything, and to be walking in these shoes today is just incredible. It feels so amazing, I’m so proud.”