PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Shaun White equated some of his tough times, when he felt burned out as a snowboarder leading into the Sochi Games, with the most decorated Olympian of all time.
White was asked at a press conference Thursday how his fourth-place halfpipe finish in Sochi motivated him to come back for a fourth Olympic run. He goes for his third halfpipe gold medal on Tuesday night (ET).
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“I watched a Michael Phelps documentary, videos on him and him just going to the pool every single day, like that life I can imagine can get tough,” White said. “Same for me [before Sochi]. The same things that got me excited and motivated weren’t really working anymore.”
Phelps, the 28-time Olympic medalist, spoke openly in 2015 and 2016 about a lack of passion for swimming leading into London 2012, where he still won six medals, including four golds, but lost two individual races after going eight for eight in 2008.
White was there in London to watch Phelps break gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record for career Olympic medals. White, an NBC Olympics correspondent in 2012, sat in the Olympic Aquatics Stadium stands with Phelps’ family and model Bar Refaeli that night.
In 2013, Phelps returned the favor by congratulating White on his last X Games win on Twitter.
Similar to Phelps in that era, White was unbeatable in 2006 and 2010, winning both Olympic contests with an early run that allowed him to take a victory lap with his finale.
After 2010, White went for more. He joined a band. He wanted two more Olympic gold medals, qualifying in the new event of slopestyle before dropping it on the eve of the Games.
Then he finished fourth in the halfpipe final. Many thought he would retire.
“At the time I was burning out. It’s hard to admit,” White said Thursday. “At the time my heart wasn’t in it. After that Olympics, the easy fix is if you weren’t strong enough, if you didn’t have the right tricks. But getting the mindset better is really hard. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like if you’ve ever been in a relationship and someone is like, they love you. I wish I could flip a switch and love you back … love snowboarding like I did when I was 7.”
White, now 31, found some of the passion again after largely taking off the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.
He and longtime coach/friend Bud Keene parted ways. The band broke up.
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White is now traveling with 2002 Olympic bronze medalist J.J. Thomas, 17-year-old rider Toby Miller and Esther Lee, a physical therapist who used to work with Venus and Serena Williams. All new to his entourage since Sochi.
He notched statement wins at last season’s U.S. Open and an Olympic qualifier last month where he scored a perfect 100 (only the last run in a contest can score a 100).
But Japan’s Ayumu Hirano won X Games two weeks ago – an event that White skipped – with back-to-back double cork 1440s. His run scored a 99, unofficially the equivalent of a perfect score because there was still one rider left to take a run.
White has yet to pull off the back-to-back 1440s in a contest, but he hopes to do it here. He may need to.
Win or lose, White is not expected to exit the Olympic stage like Phelps did in Rio. White has spoken about trying for the 2020 Games in skateboarding and even another Winter Games in Beijing in 2022.
Then maybe he’ll kick back like the swimmer.
“I saw him in Brazil,” at the Rio Olympics, White remembered. “He was like upstairs smoking a cigar somewhere. I’m probably not supposed to say that. But I think it was after the event, obviously.”