Shaun White’s Olympic-size task: learn the trick that put him in a hospital

Shaun White
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Something that Shaun White confided to five kids while shooting a commercial at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 2013 is now very relevant as he bids for a fifth Olympics and a fourth snowboarding gold medal.

“I’ll tell you my secret,” White shared between takes in a clip that made his film “Russia Calling.” “I try to watch someone else jump first, because I don’t want to be the first. I’m nervous. So I just sit and wait, and then somebody will hit it first, and then I can tell how fast I need to go.”

Back then, White was coming off trying and failing to learn a triple cork (three diagonal flips), a move so difficult and dangerous that no halfpipe snowboarder had ever done it in competition. His first practice attempt put him in the hospital. He said he almost cracked his pelvis on his second bid.

White shelved the trick in 2013 without ever landing it clean.

“Knowing how much we’ve worked on this and how much time and punishment that he’s put in and taken on it,” his then-coach Bud Keene said in 2013, “it’s pretty hard to imagine even almost anybody actually trying this thing.”

Another eight years went by without the triple cork becoming part of the halfpipe contest vernacular. Then Saas-Fee happened.

The world’s best snowboarders gathered in the Swiss Alps resort in October. It was an all-star camp ahead of a season that starts in earnest at this week’s U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colorado (live on NBC Sports).

Riders from the U.S., Japan and Australia don’t convene often outside of competition. Saas-Fee promised to be memorable. It was time for everybody to show their cards, to put out the tricks they’ll have in their bags for the Olympic season.

“The sport changed in the blink of an eye,” said J.J. Thomas, the U.S. head coach and White’s personal coach since 2015.

In a two-week span, Japan’s top four riders all landed clean triple corks, Thomas said. He saw 2018 Olympic silver medalist Ayumu Hirano land the first triple cork. White wasn’t there that day, but Thomas filmed it and texted it to him.

Thomas said that White’s response was, “Something along the lines of, I knew it was coming. Let’s go.”

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White, in an interview after Saas-Fee, said he arrived there planning to work on the triple cork even before the Japanese started stomping them.

White landed about 20 “really good” triple corks not on snow, but into an air bag at a subsequent one-week camp in Austria, Thomas said. But White also landed triple cork after triple cork into an air bag in 2013, when, admittedly intimidated, he couldn’t bring himself to try it on snow again after earlier crashes.

White said he’s using the footage of the Japanese riders from Switzerland and comparing it to his old triple cork videos.

“I haven’t actually nailed it yet, but I have the road map in my mind,” he said last month while promoting a partnership with Krave jerky.

Thomas said that White, at 35 trying to become the oldest male Olympic halfpipe rider in history, could this week land his golden run from the PyeongChang Olympics if he had to. That level of difficulty shouldn’t be necessary to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team this winter given the top riders are international.

That 2018 run featured, at the time, the most difficult combination in the world — back-to-back double cork 1440s.

Since, White took nearly two years off from riding a snowboard and three years off from competition. It was the longest break of a career that dates to missing the 2002 Olympic team by one spot at age 15.

“I haven’t really felt like an underdog in a while,” said White, who in his comeback contest last season finished fourth overall and first among Americans. “I’m maybe a little bit behind the curve. But I wouldn’t go as far as, like, underdog.”

The retired Iouri Podladtchikov, the only man to win Olympic halfpipe gold over White (in 2014), learned about the Saas-Fee triple corks from a fellow rider.

“It was only a question of time, I guess, until somebody figured it out,” said the Russian-born Swiss known as I-Pod. “The weird thing is that it always happens just before the Olympic Games, like something really exciting to watch seems to be sort of on the horizon every single time.”

Olympic halfpipes have evolved over time, from 11 1/2-foot walls in the event’s 1998 debut to around 16 feet in 2002, 18 feet in 2006 and 22 feet ever since.

As have the flips and spins. White’s winning run at his first Olympics in 2006 was highlighted by back-to-back 1080s.

In the year before the 2010 Olympics, several riders started throwing double corks — two diagonal flips. Most notably White, who won gold in Vancouver with back-to-back double corks on his first run and his signature move, the Double McTwist 1260 (two flips and three and a half spins), as a second-run finisher.

Triples – in the interim – weren’t unheard of, but remained rare: China’s Zhang Yiwei, a two-time Olympian who said he grew up idolizing White, landed one (barely) in practice in 2015. Zhang last competed in December 2019.

As athletes focused on other tricks, the triple was certainly not a standard. Until now.

What Thomas saw in Saas-Fee reminded him of the double cork proliferation of 2009-10 that he called a “quantum leap” for the sport.

“Ten years later, here we go again,” Thomas said. “But this is even gnarlier.”

Around the time White shelved the triple cork in 2013, Podladtchikov became the first man to land what he called the YOLO Flip, a cab double cork 1440. Podladtchikov also tried to learn the triple cork. He never got to the point to shift from the soft air bag to the hard snow.

“The triple cork had an extra 20 to 30 percent of difficulty and risk,” than the YOLO, Podladtchikov said. “Shaun has had double corks where you just think, god, he is spinning so slow. If he would just speed it up a little, he could easily, with so much air time, just add another flip. But, you know, easier said than done.”

By 2018, Hirano debuted the first back-to-back double cork 1440s at the X Games, two weeks before the Olympics. White tried the combination for the first time in his life in the Olympic final, landed it and won, arguably in an upset.

“The comeback of that was just so fulfilling,” said White, who four months before PyeongChang, faceplanted on a 1440 and needed 62 stitches across his forehead, lips and tongue. “After my performance in Korea, I just feel like everything’s this awesome bonus situation.”

It’s uncertain whether we’ll see a triple cork at the Beijing Olympics. That will be dependent on the conditions — the weather, and also the state of the halfpipe. Thomas hasn’t seen it in person. Many riders will see it for the first time at the Winter Games.

“The collective thing I’ve heard is that it’s really similar to the last Olympic halfpipe, which was great,” Thomas said. “But there’s elements there. The snow’s dry. The wind blows really hard.”

A run with a triple cork isn’t guaranteed to beat a run without one. One trick doesn’t win a gold medal. Five or six do.

“Obviously, you’re going to need triples to do well this Olympics,” White said. “But it’s not enough to do that. What’s the combination going to be? And how am I going to do it bigger and better than the others? You know, how do I make it different?

“It’s a lot easier to run to the finish line when you can see it. And now you can see it.”

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Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville


OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.


2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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Marie-Philip Poulin is first female hockey player to win Canada Athlete of the Year

Marie-Philip Poulin

Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.

Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.

Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.

Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.

Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.

In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.

The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.

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