The man who kept a 15-year-old Shaun White from making the 2002 Olympic team is now helping White’s bid to make the 2018 Olympic team.
White, the 2006 and 2010 Olympic halfpipe champion, has been working with a new (sort of) coach, 2002 Olympic bronze medalist J.J. Thomas, since an October training camp in New Zealand.
“We’re keeping it caj [casual],” White joked in a phone interview ahead of competing at this weekend’s Burton U.S. Open in Vail, Colo. “J.J. might become my full-time guy at the Olympics, or around the Olympics, but for now it’s kind of like a good friend, which is so funny because the guy beat me out of the Olympics when I was 15 for Salt Lake. It’s funny how life goes around.”
In 2002, White and Thomas were both in the running for the fourth and final U.S. Olympic men’s halfpipe berth for the Salt Lake City Winter Games.
Thomas beat White in the fifth and final qualifying competition to keep White from becoming the youngest American to compete in a Winter Olympics since 1992 (and younger than any American to compete in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympics, too).
Thomas went on to earn bronze in Salt Lake City, part of the second-ever U.S. sweep of a Winter Olympic event behind gold medalist Ross Powers and silver medalist Danny Kass.
One week after losing to Thomas in the Olympic qualifier, White earned his first Winter X Games medal, a halfpipe silver behind Thomas.
“He’s been close to unbeatable ever since that whole  season,” Thomas said. “We all kind of knew it, once he gets his man strength. We knew  was the last chance to keep him under control.”
Thomas retired in 2011 or 2012 and started coaching, most notably guiding 2010 Olympian Louie Vito.
Thomas said he and White, who have known each other for nearly 20 years, began chatting as friends while Vito and White trained in New Zealand in October.
“By the second or third day I couldn’t keep my mouth shut,” talking about halfpipe tricks, Thomas said. “I started chirping. It kind of went from there. I started giving him my two cents, and we took it from there.”
In December, White competed for the second time since the Sochi Olympics at the Dew Tour Mountain Championships in Breckenridge, Colo., the same ski resort that hosted that final 2002 Olympic qualifier.
This time, Thomas was there to support White rather than beat him.
White prevailed, beating the Sochi Olympic gold and silver medalists and bouncing back from fourth-place finishes at the 2014 Olympics and 2015 Winter X Games.
“[Dew Tour] was a big statement,” Thomas said. “In my mind, I think he’s back. … When he’s feeling good, everyone else is in trouble.”
White is competing this weekend for the first time since Dew Tour, entered in both halfpipe and slopestyle at the U.S. Open. It’s his first slopestyle competition since he pulled out one day before the discipline’s Olympic debut in Sochi.
White said Wednesday that he wasn’t sure if he would try to qualify for the 2018 Olympic team in slopestyle.
“I kind of wanted to ride [the U.S. Open] and see where the competitors are at,” said White, who went on to finish 31st out of 31 riders in the event Friday, falling on the first feature (a rail) on both of his runs.
As for White’s coach at the last three Olympics, Bud Keene, both said they parted amicably after the Sochi Olympics.
Keene said he and White accomplished all they could together, and the coach wanted to invest more time in grass-roots snowboarding and instructing at his BKPro Camps.
“Working with Shaun was awesome and some of the best years of my life,” Keene said. “At the same time, working with an athlete of that caliber in any sport takes up most of, if not all of your time. There were a lot of things that I still wanted to accomplish as a coach or a mover and shaker in the snowboard world.
“It had nothing to do with what did or did not happen in Sochi.”
White never had an official coach before he linked up with Keene through the U.S. snowboarding team in the run-up to the Torino 2006 Winter Olympics.
Keene came out of retirement to reconnect with White leading up to and during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games. He became White’s full-time coach for the first time leading into Sochi.
“Having someone like Bud around for the Olympic run was nice, it was great to have somebody in my corner, but as a full-time coach it just didn’t really work for me,” White said.
Plus, White planned to take the entire 2014-15 season off from competition, and he and Keene had “two-year chill-out periods” between past Olympics, Keene said.
Keene was at White’s side for a last-minute decision to compete at the 2015 Winter X Games, but that was a one-off deal.
“Bud and I had a great run together, and we did some amazing things,” White said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done, and I consider him a great friend, but there was part of that season of not having a coach [in 2014-15] and not doing those things and not competing to get me back into the mind frame of, man, this is really fun, and this is why I started doing it in the first place. I’m having a good time, and not sitting there beating myself over the head with this trick after trick and like we’ve got to do it and we’ve got to win it. And I put that on myself.”
White said if he does have a coach with him at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics, high-fiving or fist-pounding him before a halfpipe run like Keene used to do, it would probably be Thomas.
White made other additions to his staff since Sochi, including hiring a full-time trainer and physical therapist for the first time.
The physical therapist, Esther Lee, used to work with Venus and Serena Williams.
“So Serena came to my Halloween party, which was pretty dope,” White said. “[Esther] is getting to know this world of snowboarding because it’s completely different from tennis, obviously.”
White plans to compete again after the U.S. Open, heading to China for a competition later this month.
Next year, White plans to expand his Air & Style brand to include halfpipe and slopestyle competitions and at more venues, including Mammoth Mountain, Calif.
That means he also plans to compete in Air & Style for the first time since he bought a majority stake in the company before the Sochi Olympics.
“We were talking on the lift yesterday, the next Olympics start right now,” Thomas said. “It’s time to start planning out where to go and where to practice.”