Shaun White is an former professional snowboarder. He is a five-time Olympian and a three-time Olympic gold medalist in halfpipe snowboarding. He holds the world record for the most X Games gold medals and most Olympic gold medals by a snowboarder. After announcing his retirement from the sport of snowboarding prior to competing in the 2022 Beijing Winter games, his fifth and final Olympics, he launched his own active lifestyle brand called Whitespace in January 2022. In October 2022, a full-range line of outerwear, snowboard hard-goods, athletic equipment and streetwear apparel were released.
Shaun, you are a five-time Olympian and have won three Olympic gold medals in halfpipe snowboarding in 2006, 2010 and 2018. What did winning these gold medals mean to you at the time when you won them and what do they still mean to you today?
It meant the world to me, because for as long as I could remember when I was young, there wasn’t much to the sport of snowboarding. People didn’t really think much of it. It wasn’t considered a legitimate sport. And so to have early beginnings in a sport that was kind of misunderstood as this sort of rebellious group and then to have the legitimacy of the Olympics and then to actually win and give legitimacy to my life and career and passion was just incredible. So it meant the world to me and to my family.
I was so young, I was 19 when I first won, so the first one meant like we made it. It just felt amazing. We took a chance and we won. And then everything after that was just kind of this dream sequence where it just got better and better and the sport continued to grow. And now I’m in this place of I guess legacy, it’s just symbolic of how much time I’ve been in the sport. Looking at the next generation, it’s so impressive. And I’m just proud. I never stopped being proud of myself until I retired. So now I’m like “Oh, wow. I did pretty good”. I’m feeling good about it.
You are one of the most decorated athletes in X Games history, winning 13 gold medals, an all-time X Games record. How did it feel being the most successful X Games athlete and holding an all-time record?
Well, for the longest time X Games meant more to me than the Olympics, just because it was judged by your peers. All the judges were actual ex-professional snowboarders. At the Olympics, we weren’t sure how they were gonna treat snowboarding. And at the time there was still a lot of rebellion in the sport. The X Games were our Olympics. It was that big. And so to win that event over and over, it felt incredible and it gave me a platform. In snowboarding, we had events here and there, some international competitions, but the X Games was our biggest event. So to win that in snowboarding multiple times just felt so good. I was 16 years old when I started winning, 15 when I got two silver medals.
And then for skateboarding, that one was just kind of like I had already achieved everything I’d hoped and dreamed in snowboarding. And I just started at the bottom of the barrel again with skateboarding and worked my way to the top. And then I reached that point where I was winning X Games winter and summer. You know, for me, I probably wanted to be a pro skateboarder more than I wanted to be a snowboarder because I didn’t get to do it as much. I was always looking over the fence going “Oh, I have this, but I want that”. To have both was amazing.
And I’m glad you asked about it cause my career in snowboarding’s really outshadowed my career in skateboarding. But I’m so proud of that, because my competitors would skateboard all year round and I would be snowboarding and I’d have to jump over and then try to relearn my tricks and learn new tricks in order to beat them, and then just walk away and go back to snowboarding and do the same thing over every single season. It’s incredibly tough and challenging, but I loved that challenge though. When I was getting maybe tired of snowboarding in the cold, I would go back to the beach and start skateboarding and then once I was tired of skateboarding, there’s the winter again and I would start snowboarding. So I think it kept me interested and excited in both sports. The X Games winter and summer is something I’m definitely very proud of.
You became the first athlete to compete in both Winter and Summer games, with a total of 15 gold medals.
I think I was just a product of where I grew up. We had the mountains within a three hour drive and we had the skate park practically down the street, a 20 minute drive. I would go there every day after school and I was definitely a product of that environment. And then people like Tony Hawk and these incredible skateboarders would skate at my skate park, so talk about learning from the best.
And then even in the mountains, people don’t think about it, but I was able to learn from the best snowboarders in the world because at the time big mountains didn’t want to have snowboarders around, they didn’t want snowboard parks. It’s not like today where you compete who has the best park and pipe and these things. The scrappy little mountain in California was like “Yeah, we’ll take your money. Come buy lift tickets from us, we don’t care. Take the whole west side of the mountain. You just stay over there”. It was called Westridge, it was this famous run.
On both sides, I had incredibly talented people to learn from. I was the first of my kind at that point. I think there are some people now that that can do both for sure, but on that level still is to be seen. It’s a rarity.
You became a professional snowboarder very young, when you got first endorsed by Burton. What has beeing a professional athlete taught you in life?
I was pro at 13, but I was was with Burton at the age of like 6, 7 years old.
It’s taught me kind of that perseverance. The ability to show up to a situation and rise to the occasion or come up short and feel exhilarated again. It’s one of those things where I’d either show up and win and be like “Great, I’m on track, everything’s going perfect”, or I wouldn’t do well and go “Well, I have a clear vision of exactly where I need to be now and I have the motivation”, so it’s the greatest gift either way. And so over time, I think now with life in general, things will come my way and I am okay, cool. Instead of a problem coming my way and being like “Oh my God, a problem”, I’m like “Oh, a problem. What do we do”? It’s all how you approach it. And I think it’s given me that gift that in life you’re gonna be challenged and when you can face those challenges with this certain sort of attitude, it just makes the whole life experience so much better.
But then again, it’s twofold. When I approached life when I was younger, I was just trying to win at everything. But you can’t win in a relationship, with your girlfriend or you can’t win with family. It’s give and take. So I had to learn these new skill sets over my adult life, but it’s been a beautiful thing though. Sports and athletics has definitely changed me for the better, I feel like.
How hard was the decision to retire from the sport for you?
It was tough, but it was definitely more like my gut is telling me this right now and I just kind of went with it. I always go with how I’m feeling inside and at times you have hesitation and need to push through it, but something about it was telling me it’s been an incredible run, I had a couple injuries, things that were hindering me and I just didn’t have that same drive and I realized like maybe this is time. And then once that idea crept in, it was just like “Oh, this makes sense”.
But the beautiful part is, I still enjoy the sport just as much as before. There’s just that element of competing that’s gone. It was my niece’s birthday recently and I put her on a board for the first time ever. We make kids’ boards at ‘Whitespace’, my brand, and we put her on for the first time. It was like the next generation is happening again. And so there’s so much to enjoy within the sport still. It’s not like football or something, where you have to get the whole team together. I can still go enjoy it on my own. So I feel like that’s been really rewarding. I think the decision was hard, but the result has been been incredible. And time will tell. It’s the first season, so I’ll see how I get by when I’m at the halfpipe watching the contest.
We saw raw emotions at your final Olympics in Beijing in 2022, especially when you came in fourth place at your last professional competition. How was it processing all this at the same time?
It was very surreal, but there were some magic moments within the Olympics. And just before, I competed in locks and ended up in third place. There were these moments cause I was injured and all these little things happening. And then I got Covid and it was just like this nightmare unfolding and I hadn’t made the team. I went to the very last competition and nailed it, got the podium, got the team, so there were these big winning moments through the season. And even at the Olympics, I fell in my first qualifying run. The world’s watching and the pressure is on and I just nailed the second run to make the finals. It was all these little moments stacking up to be this incredible journey.
Maybe from the outside perspective to watch the games, it’s like he didn’t win or he didn’t hit the podium. But to me, it was all like one big sort of victory tour, like a memory sort of nostalgia reunion tour. I saw all the coaches that I used to compete with, all the cameramen I I’ve known since I was a little boy, all the event organizers. Even the competitors were like “I have a picture of with you with an autograph from X Games”. It just shows you how much time has gone by in the sport. So I felt more like it wasn’t so much about hitting the podium, but just just being there to be celebrated and celebrate sport and everything I’ve done. Obviously, I would’ve loved to have gotten a medal, but I had made amends with the whole thing even before I got there. I was like whatever happens, I’m here to have fun. And it’s been a great journey. The only thing that annoyed me is I had some big plans for that day and I didn’t get to make it to the last hits.
Life’s been busy for you after the Olympics. In January 2022, you announced the launch of your own active lifestyle brand ‘Whitespace’. The company celebrated the launch with 50 limited edition signed snowboards, which sold out in minutes. What made you decide to launch your own brand? And what is the concept behind it?
The 50 boards was kind of a calculated thing where we needed to have product in the marketplace in order to use that board at the Olympics, to follow the rules of the IOC. So that was like, let’s just release 50 boards for people and they’re all signed in numbers, more of a commemorative sort of thing. But I’ve always wanted to do my own brand. It’s something that’s been in the back of my head ever since I was a kid. I grew up around Tony Hawk who had ‘Birdhouse’ skateboards and Jake Burton who had ‘Burton’ snowboards and everybody wanted to ride for their companies. And Jake was developing products that were shaping the future of the sport and it was just such an amazing thing to be around. So I was definitely influenced by that.
Since I was sponsored at seven till somewhat recently, I’d been making products and working on ad campaigns and getting samples and fits from overseas, working on the color palettes, all these things for various brands that I’ve worked with. So I’ve been kind of, without knowing it, learning how to do every little piece of a company and every little detail. And so it’s been a great learning experience and now I can take all of that and put it toward my own brand. And it’s just been so rewarding.
With the sponsorship, it’s like whenever you join a sponsor, they have their mold. This is how we do things, this is our logo, this is the words we use to describe the company, this is our imagery, here’s our colors, this is what we’re about, here’s our statement. And it’s my job as an athlete to fit that mold, but then try to be myself as much as I can without being too abrasive or whatever. And when you’re in the driver’s seat of a company, you get to really create your own mold. Like, this is our name, this is what we’re about, this is the products we make and this is the direction we want to go.
A beautiful example of this is when I was riding at Mammoth Mountain and saw this guy, who was head to toe in Louis Vuitton. It turned out to be Virgil, the famous designer for Louis Vuitton and Off-White. We took some runs together, we exchanged information and I called him to talk to him about ‘Whitespace’. And so I called him and he’s like “I love it. This is amazing. I love the logo. This is perfect. Why don’t you try this instead of that”. He was a really incredible guy, so generous.
Before Covid and everything getting shut down, I was having a Louis Vuitton snowboard trunk made and all the factories shut down. So I sent him the rendering and he was like “This is incredible. We have to do this. We have to make this happen. And we could collaborate. We could do this whole thing”. And so we made a snowboard case, a guitar case and then some travel luggage for me for the Olympics with the ‘Whitespace’ stripe down the middle and the LV logo. It was just so cool. But that all happened because I bumped into somebody and we’ve created a relationship and we both vibed and liked the same things and had the design element in our lives. And it just all came together.
There’s really fun things like that that get to happen with the brand. And obviously that’s the high end of it all. But even more rewarding, It’s getting DMs of a little girl pulling our snowboard out of a box and looking at her dad and being so happy. I just remember getting my first snowboard and that feeling. And now my brand is that for someone else. And in 20 years from now I’m gonna meet them and they’re gonna be “That Whitespace board was my first board and I felt like I was you when I rode”. It’s so cool to have that kind of ripple effect through time.
So the brand’s been great, it’s been really rewarding. Sales are amazing, everybody’s been so supportive and it’s just the beginning. I’m excited to really sink my teeth in and start making products for people that really change and shape the sport, cause for me, I’m still a competitor. I’m still on the hunt for perfection and progression and I can keep that side of my brain still going with the brand, which is nice. It doesn’t have to sit dormant.
In October 2022, you released a full-range line of outerwear, snowboard hard-goods, athletic equipment and streetwear apparel. What are the future plans for the brand?
I’m keeping my eye out right now. I’m hoping to have maybe a select few athletes on the team. Make a little team and guide and kind of help the careers of some, for the next generation. That would be incredible, cause that’s what happened for me when I was very young. So I’m hoping to do that, a bit of a mentor role. And then for the brand obviously, we just wanna represent performance cause that’s what I’ve been about for so long. We just wanna make the best products and we wanna have the best boards and we just want to be unique in the space.
There’s so many brands out there that have been these legacy brands within the sport and that’s amazing, I applaud it. But they’ve all been around for 40 plus years and nothing’s really changed much. So we’re hoping to be a new player in the space and really kind of change the way people look at the sport, from the graphics to the tricks. I just wanna make something unique and so that’s what we ask ourselves every day. And the name of the brand is ‘Whitespace’. It’s a void waiting for something new to fill it. It’s a blank canvas, it’s like a gap in the market. Every time we sit down, we ask ourselves what’s the whitespace and what are we gonna do that the competitors are not doing. Or how our ads look different from the others, what’s gonna separate us from everything that’s out there. So that’s the driving force that we keep in mind every time we go to design the line or think of the new boards or where we are going next.
I would obviously like to be in every aspect of winter for sure, because that’s what I know the most. But like you’ve mentioned before, I was in skateboarding. I love to go mountain biking, there’s so much that I like to do. And so I think that with the brand we’ll start within the world of winter and then for the future we’ll definitely start moving outside of that, in the fashion space as well as potentially other sports and things.
You were born with a Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect for which you had two open-heart surgeries before the age of one. You are also an advocate for children battling illness and are an active supporter of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Center, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Make-A-Wish Foundation. Why are these causes so important and dear to you?
I think that’s exactly why. I remember my family being in the hospital and I’ve seen the pictures of not only myself, but my sister as well went through some health issues when she was very young. It was a very rocky start to my life. And so when I meet people and I meet kids who have a similar heart condition or going through something, I see myself in them and I like to just try to support and help any way that I can.
It was such a weird thing to have your life sort of threatened in those early years. I feel like it put a fight in me. I wanted to prove to myself and to my parents that I wasn’t gonna let this sort of illness from an early age define who I was. And so it set me on this course, whether it was snowboarding or skateboarding or whatever, I was on a mission. Working with these organizations is so incredible and rewarding and I’ve always had a soft spot for kids, cause I remember dealing with these things at a young age and it’s really tough and it’s really awful and it affects not only the patient, but the families as well. And I’m definitely trying to be more useful in that space and help where I can.
Now I have more time so I can be at the events and meet the kids and do things. I flew to Minnesota for ‘Children’s HeartLink’. It’s an amazing organization that teaches doctors how to perform lifesaving surgeries in underserved countries and areas and then those doctors teach other doctors. It’s kind of this ripple effect. I went to a big charity fundraiser for them and then I went to another event to raise money for them and I just did another thing recently. I can actually go out and really make moves and things happen. And that’s a very rewarding thing on another spectrum.
Talent: Shaun White
Photographer: Gabriel Perez Silva
Stylist: Raz Martinez
Hair: Sergio Estrada
Skin: Alex Levy
Styling assistants: Grace Connaughton & David Atere
Editor: Timi Letonja
This interview was done for Numéro Netherlands by Jana Letonja.