Shaun White turns to snowboarder who kept him off 2002 Olympic team

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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 [2002] season,” Thomas said. “We all kind of knew it, once he gets his man strength. We knew [2002] 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.”

VIDEO: Shaun White interview on ‘Last Call: Carson Daly’

Nick Goepper opens Olympic qualifying on podium; contenders crash out

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BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — U.S. Olympic men’s ski slopestyle qualifying is underway with Sochi bronze medalist Nick Goepper delivering the first blow.

Goepper finished second at Dew Tour Breckenridge, taking the early edge in Olympic qualifying.

With a victory at any of the remaining selection events, Goepper would be looking good for one of up to four spots on the team for PyeongChang.

“I was really hoping to ski my best today, and I think I skied 98 percent,” Goepper said. “The Olympic selection podium is a bonus and eases the pressure a little bit for the next couple, but the pressure wasn’t really there. I’m just thinking of these as individual events [instead of Olympic qualifiers].”

Alex Hall (fifth place) and Sochi silver medalist Gus Kenworthy (sixth place) also got their Olympic qualifying attempts off to a decent start, but in order to be automatically nominated to the Olympic team, skiers need a minimum of two top-three finishes among five selection events.

Goepper was the only U.S. skier able to crack the podium in Breckenridge.

Sweden’s Henrik Harlaut (first place) and Norway’s Oystein Braaten (third place) played the role of spoiler for the rest of the U.S. team. Harlaut and Braaten are both considered medal contenders for PyeongChang.

Crashes took their toll on several U.S. Olympic hopefuls.

McRae Williams, the reigning world champion, was forced to drop out after crashing on his first run. Colby Stevenson and 2014 Olympian Bobby Brown also did not finish the contest after taking spills of their own.

The contest also missed the reigning Olympic gold medalist. Joss Christensen sat out the event as he rehabs from a torn ACL but plans to return in January for the final four selection events.

On the women’s side, Maggie Voisin remains on track for a nomination to the U.S. Olympic team.

She finished fourth, best among Americans, in the Olympic qualifier at Breckenridge on the strength of a run that featured three 900s.

Voisin won the first qualifier for women’s slopestyle, which was held last season.

She still needs one more top-three finish at any of the three remaining selection events to be eligible for an automatic nomination, but she has consistently been the top performer among the U.S. women.

With two-time X Games gold medalist Kelly Sildaru sidelined with a knee injury this season, the field looks wide open for PyeongChang.

Voisin, then 15, was slated to make her Olympic debut in Sochi as the youngest American in any sport but was injured just days before the competition.

As long as she stays healthy, she will be a medal contender in PyeongChang, as will Norway’s Johanne Killi and France’s Tess Ledeux.

Killi narrowly edged out Ledeux, who recently turned 16, for the victory in Breckenridge. Sarah Hoefflin of Switzerland rounded out the podium.

Four U.S. selection events remain for the men, and three events remain for the women. Olympic qualifying resumes in January with a series of contests in Aspen, Colo., and Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings
Ski Slopestyle 
(women through two of five events; men through one of five)
1. Maggie Voisin — 150*
2. Devin Logan — 82
3. Darian Stevens — 81
4. Taylor Lundquist — 52
5. Nadia Gonzales — 28

1. Nick Goepper — 80*
2. Alex Hall — 45
3. Gus Kenworthy — 40
4. Bobby Brown — 32
5. Cody LaPlante — 29

**Has automatic qualifying minimum of two top-three results.
*Has one top-three result.

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MORE: List of athletes qualified for U.S. Olympic team

Maame Biney, J.R. Celski join U.S. Olympic short track team

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Maame Biney will become the second African-born athlete to compete for the U.S. at the Winter Olympics and the first black woman on a speed skating team.

J.R. Celski, a three-time medalist, is going to a third Winter Games.

Biney, Celski and Aaron Tran qualified in short track at the Olympic Trials in Kearns, Utah, after the 500m on Saturday.

The team is now at five skaters — John-Henry Krueger and Lana Gehring qualified on the first night Friday.

Three more skaters will qualify Sunday after 1000m races — two men and one woman.

One of Katherine Reutter-Adamek and Jessica Kooreman, the top U.S. women at the last two Olympics, is guaranteed to miss the PyeongChang team.

Neither could keep up with the 17-year-old Biney, who moved to the D.C. area from Ghana with her father at age 5, on Saturday.

Biney swept the 500m finals, taking leads from the start and holding off more experienced women. She actually fell — while celebrating after crossing the finish line in the last race.

Afterward, NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce told Biney that eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno believes Biney doesn’t know how good she is.

“People have been telling me that forever, and I think right now I’m kind of seeing it, but I feel like I have a long ways to go, but thanks Apolo,” said Biney, who won a junior world championships bronze medal last season.

Celski did not win the men’s 500m, where he is the world-record holder. Krueger did, with Tran in second.

But the fact that Krueger finished in the top two in Friday’s 1500m and the 500m means that Celski gets on the team via his second-place finish in the 1500m.

Celski won two bronze medals at the 2010 Olympics and another relay silver in Sochi.

He took a full season off after Sochi — undergoing hip surgery — and overcame further knee and back injuries the last two years to return to the World Cup podium this season.

Celski is the only American to earn an individual World Cup medal this season (a bronze) in 24 total races.

Celski won’t be able to race the 500m in PyeongChang if Thomas Hong makes the Olympic team on Sunday.

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MORE: U.S. Olympic short track skater gets 4-year doping ban

U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials

Day Time (ET) Events Network
Friday 6:45-8 p.m. 1500m rounds STREAM LINK
8:30-10 p.m. 1500m finals NBCSN | STREAM LINK
Saturday 12-1:45 p.m. 500m rounds STREAM LINK
2:30-4 p.m. 500m finals NBC | STREAM LINK
Sunday 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. 1000m rounds STREAM LINK
1-3 p.m. 1000m finals NBC | STREAM LINK