| USA TODAY Sports
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Shaun White threw the trick, the one that had sent him to the hospital five months ago, and told his coach he was scared.
In practice for the Olympic final here at Phoenix Snow Park, the memories of that crash hadn’t faded any more than the still-pink scars on White’s forehead, nose and upper lip. JJ Thomas encouraged White, telling him he had executed the trick fine.
By the time his third run in the final came around, that took a backseat to the competitiveness that has made White snowboarding’s biggest icon.
Needing to land a combination of tricks he’d never done before, White soared above the halfpipe and put down the run of his life. In the end, he was Olympic champion again.
“We were on such a great path, and it was that true question of do I really want this?” White said. “And stepping out on the snow again means that I’m willing to let this happen to myself again. That’s a big decision, and plenty of my friends were like, you’ve got medals. You’re blessed to be well off from this sport, you could easily just go sail into the sunset and write your novel.
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“But I set out to do this goal, and I stuck to it. And they helped me overcome that fear and then I did the same trick that put me in the hospital to win the Olympics. It was a true emotional trip.”
The past four years have tested White’s motivation in a sport where he became a global icon.
In the leadup to the Sochi Games, White was doing more than he ever had. In addition to competing on the halfpipe team, he qualified for the slopestyle team before pulling out of the event once he got to Russia. He was touring with his band, Bad Things. He was even trying to learn Spanish.
“In Sochi, I just didn’t have it in me,” he said. “And it’s awful to admit it, but yet it’s just unmotivated. I was slightly defeated before I got there.
“I had this perfect storm of biting off more than I can chew during a time when I was the most unmotivated.”
That changed after Sochi.
Initially, he committed publicly to returning. But he wasn’t competing while he toured with his band and some thought he retired. He came back in 2015-16, but he pulled out of a competition after the death of a friend.
“My comeback season, life threw me a curveball,” he said. “And I’m like, what does this mean? Flips in the halfpipe don’t really mean much to me right now.”
“Really slowly I had to find the love for the sport again.”
That was not entirely accidental. White changed the team around him, getting a new manager, publicist, coach and physical therapist. He started working out, training off the snow in a way that motivated him to get back on it. He started traveling with Toby Miller, a young rider whose enthusiasm for the sport reminded White what he loved about it.
All was in position to aim for success in Pyeongchang, until White was trying a cab double cork 1440 in New Zealand in October.
He ended up in the hospital for five days with bruised lungs, gashes on his forehead and nose and a split upper lip. White needed 62 stitches, some of which are still in his tongue.
“You can see his face. He’s still healing,” Thomas said. “It’s just remarkable that he was able to overcome that.”
Overcoming that meant landing back-to-back 1440s after silver medalist Ayumu Hirano had done it in his run.
White did it for the first time, hitting a massive frontside double cork 1440 — which is two off-axis flips with four spins — before hitting a cab double cork 1440, the trick he had crashed on.
The tricks are dangerous enough that he didn’t practice them in combination before the competition.
“I was thinking man, what a weird Olympics. Usually Shaun shows up and if he does his run, he wins,” Thomas said. “But that’s not the case anymore, he has to do his run and do it big and perfect and all this other stuff.”
It was enough to score a 97.75 for another gold, one that came 12 years after he won his first one, four years after a devastating showing in Sochi and five months after the crash made him reconsider if he wanted to continue in the sport.
He listened to Thomas after that practice run, and he reminded himself that he could do the trick. Motivated to land it, White overcame his fear of what could happen if it went wrong.
After he’d won, White teared up at what it had taken to sustain his push to get back atop the Olympic podium. Over the past four years, he’d found plenty of reason to question his motivation.
Did he still want this? Each time he answered yes, and after a groundbreaking run, he was Olympic champion again.
“It just means the world to me. To win in that fashion is something special. That last run, it’s just like all that hard work and all the injuries. The ups and downs and the decision to come back after all that, you just did it,” White said. “You cemented it in and I don’t think you could ever forget this day in the sport of snowboarding. I’m proud that I’m on top, and I don’t say that often about myself because I try to stay hungry for that next win, but I’m changing my ways and I’m really proud of myself.”