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’

Cathy Freeman, drawing strength from Aboriginal history, delivered under epic Olympic pressure

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As Cathy Freeman powered around the track at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australia held a collective breath.

Twenty-seven-year-old Freeman – with long, elegant strides that made running look almost effortless – carried more pressure than any other athlete at those Games as she ran the 400m final.

But pressure, the kind that could have caused another athlete to buckle, only seemed to spur Freeman. Twenty years ago today, she became Australia’s first Aboriginal athlete to win an individual Olympic gold medal.

“My running has allowed me to walk in a light, to be in a light, to live in a light that comes from within. It’s carried me to these places that I never thought imaginable,” Freeman said in an ABC Australia documentary called “Freeman” released this month in commemoration of the anniversary. She was unavailable to comment for this story.

Freeman was born in Mackay, a city in Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef. She grew up in a tight-knit family, one of five children. Her paternal great-grandfather served in World War I, but because of his Aboriginal heritage, his military service was not recognized when he returned home. He was not offered a land grant given to white soldiers. Her maternal great-grandfather was sent to a penal colony on Palm Island with his wife and children after refusing to sign over his paycheck to local authorities.

“I was a kid who was quite embarrassed to be a Black kid, an Indigenous kid. I grew up with that self-image,” she said in “Freeman.” “I could never understand why, when I smiled at someone, they wouldn’t smile back. … It used to quietly really devastate me.”

Her stepfather, Bruce, encouraged Freeman to run as a child, and to harbor big dreams.

“To put up on the wall, ‘I am the greatest athlete,’” she told ABC.

At 16, Freeman became the first Aboriginal woman to win a Commonwealth Games title as part of a 4x100m relay in Auckland, New Zealand. She made her Olympic debut in 1992, eliminated in the 400m quarterfinals.

Before leaving for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, British Columbia, Freeman packed an Aboriginal flag in her suitcase. The black, yellow and red flag, first flown on National Aborigines Day in 1971, represents the Aboriginal people, the sun and spiritual connection to the land.

After winning the 400m, Freeman wrapped herself in the Aboriginal flag before taking the Australian flag and bringing both around the track in a victory lap. Arthur Tunstall, the head of the Australian delegation, was outraged.

But Freeman was undeterred, carrying both flags again after winning the 200m.

“I wanted to shout, ‘Look at me. Look at my skin. I’m Black, and I’m the best,’” Freeman told ABC. “There’s no more shame.”

The gesture ignited national debate, shining light on the racism and repression Indigenous Australians faced at home.

“There’s this mural in Melbourne with traditional Aboriginal people with chains around their necks, being treated like animals,” Freeman told ABC. “I draw strength from those sorts of paintings, which is pretty much what the flag represents, all the struggles, I suppose, and hardships my people have had to deal with.”

Freeman won a silver medal in the 400m at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, beaten by France’s Marie-Jose Perec, the defending champion from 1992.

A few weeks after the Olympics, Freeman topped Perec at a meet in Brussels. Perec focused on the 200m the following year and was out with health issues in 1998, while Freeman won back-to-back world titles in 1997 and 1999 in her absence. Going into the Sydney Olympics, the two hadn’t raced each other in four years.

Freeman made no effort to conceal the fact that Perec was a major source of motivation.

“It was always her in the front of my mind and the front of my heart that made me do the things I did – training the way I did, aspiring the way I did, and dreaming the way I did,” Freeman told ABC.

Perec was entered in the 400m in Sydney but left the city under mysterious circumstances before her race. Perec, according to a New York Times story at the time, vented her frustrations about the Australian media.

“I have the impression that everything has been made up in order to destabilize me,” she said.

One front-page headline read “Mademoiselle La Chicken: Perec flees before facing Cathy.”

“My heart dropped,” Freeman told ABC of Perec leaving Sydney. “My heart drops still now. I knew that I was up for it. She knew it, and I knew it, but we’ll never know because it didn’t happen. That race will never happen.”

Freeman, meanwhile, faced relentless pressure leading up to the 400m final. Newspaper headlines read, “The single gold all Australia craves” and “Running for her country, her people, herself.”

Freeman’s friend Michael Johnson – a four-time Olympic gold medalist who won the 200m-400m double four years earlier in Atlanta – understood the weight and importance of performing at a home Olympics.

“I sort of lived that moment with her, because it was four years after I was the face of the Games in Atlanta in a home Games,” Johnson said in August. “It was her time four years later in Sydney. We talked a lot in the lead-up to that and I tried to advise her as much as I could of how to deal with that pressure.”

On Sept. 15, Freeman lit the Olympic cauldron to open the Sydney Games. Ten days later, after easing off her warm-up clothes to reveal a sleek Nike body suit, she settled into her blocks for the most anticipated event of the Games.

Her coach, Peter Fortune, had jotted down a race plan on a piece of paper, with notes like “fast start for 50m,” “move from very fast to fast relaxed to the 200m,” “pick up on bend a little to make sure of your position,” and “go hard from about 120 to go and hold form to finish line.”

Johnson was at Stadium Australia that night waiting for his own 400m final, which would take place just after the women’s event. Instead of waiting in the call room, he left to go into the stadium, beneath the stands, so he could watch Freeman race. His seven competitors followed.

“We all just stood there,” Johnson said. “We’re fierce rivals, and we stood there to watch that race because it was just that intriguing. You could hear the crowd, and everybody knew that this was the race that everybody wanted to see, and we wanted to see it, too.”

In the noise of more than 112,000 spectators, Freeman found quiet.

“I remember in my warm-up feeling really relaxed, and all of the sudden the words, ‘just do what I know,’ came into my head,” Freeman recalled to NBC on The Olympic Show a year after the Games. “And so, that was that. I went out and did what I knew.”

Freeman trailed off the start, careful not to overexert herself too early. She closed in on the last curve and powered ahead on the final stretch, crossing the line at 49.11.

When she looks back on the race, “I feel like I’m being protected. My ancestors were the first people to walk on this land. It’s a really powerful force. Those other girls were always going to have to come up against my ancestors,” she told ABC.

Fiercely competitive with herself, Freeman was disappointed by her time. She knew she could run under 49 seconds. But her win remains one of the most significant moments of the Games, and the image of Freeman circling the track in a barefoot victory lap with the Aboriginal and Australian flags is indelible.

“The power of the emotion of everybody that night was just amazing,” Freeman told NBC on The Olympic Show. “Maybe some massive cosmic explosion took place in that stadium. … It was something I don’t think I’ll ever, ever experience again.”

That night at the track, later called “Magic Monday,” would go down as one of the most memorable in Olympic history.

After Freeman’s victory, Johnson became the first man to win consecutive 400m titles. American Stacy Dragila won the first Olympic women’s pole vault competition, topping Russian-born Australian Tatiana Grigorieva. Great Britain’s Jonathan Edwards, the world record holder in the triple jump, won a long awaited gold medal in his fourth Games. The men’s 10,000m came down to a head-to-head sprint in the last 100 meters, as Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie edged Kenyan Paul Tergat by .09 of a second after 25 laps around the track.

Freeman, who initially targeted the next Olympics in Athens, ultimately retired in 2003, citing a lack of passion and motivation to continue running at the highest level.

Her influence and legacy stretched far beyond the track, continuing to resonate with those who hoped to follow her lead.

On Sept. 25, 2000, 12-year-old Patty Mills sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, his stuffed Sydney mascots and the Aboriginal flag on display. Mills and his mother had decorated the room in the Australian colors.

Years before he became the first Indigenous Australian to win an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs, before representing Australia as an Olympian himself, Mills readied for Freeman’s race like it was his own.

He doesn’t remember much of the race – “maybe because I was screaming my face off trying to push her along” – but he does recall happy tears that followed as he watched with his parents.

“What Cathy never knew at that moment was that there was a little 12-year-old boy … that was so inspired that he was fully committed to becoming just like her,” Mills wrote in an email. “I was inspired by the way she represented herself and her culture. She was clearly very proud of who she was and never ashamed of it and because of this, I was inspired by the way she handled adversity.”

Freeman, now 47, is still amazed by the legacy of her triumph 20 years ago.

“People still light up when they talk about that night in September. They sparkle, and we’re talking about something that happened so long ago,” she told ABC.

“The lovely thing about this particular story is a lot of people were involved in it.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

MORE: How Cathy Freeman came to light the Olympic cauldron

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Chloe Dygert crashes over guard rail at world championships, has surgery

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American Chloé Dygert crashed over a guard rail in the world road cycling championships time trial, where she appeared en route to a repeat title, and underwent leg surgery as a result.

Dygert, who last year won by the largest margin in history as the youngest-ever champion, lost control of her bike while approaching a curve to the right.

Her front wheel bobbled, and she collided with the barricade, flipping over into an area with grass.

“I remember thinking what if I can get my bike can I still win?” was posted on Dygert’s social media at 6:01 a.m. local time the next day. “The first thing I remember was asking [USA Cycling chief of sport performance Jim Miller] if I was done.. Then I looked down and saw my leg.”

Dygert, who had a left leg laceration, was tended to by several people, put on a stretcher and taken to a hospital in Bologna, about 25 miles from the worlds host of Imola.

“We are relieved that this crash was not worse than what it could have been,” Miller said in a press release. “While this crash is distressing, Chloe is young and a fighter. With Chloe’s determination, we know she will be back riding before we know it. For now, we want her to focus on healing.”

About 10 minutes after the crash, Dutchwoman Anna van der Breggen won her first time trial title.

Van der Breggen took silver the last three years behind Dygert and countrywoman Annemiek van Vleuten, who missed this year’s race after breaking her wrist last week in the Giro Rosa.

Dygert, 23, had a 26-second lead at the 14-kilometer time check of the 31-kilometer race. Full results are here.

Dygert qualified for the Tokyo Olympics when she won last year’s world time trial title. She has been bidding to make the Olympics on the road and the track.

Worlds continue Friday with the men’s time trial airing on Olympic Channel and NBC Sports Gold for Cycling Pass subscribers at 8:15 a.m. ET. A full TV schedule is here.

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MORE: USA Cycling names Olympic team finalists