Walking into Shaun White’s house in Rancho Santa Fe, a wealthy, hilly enclave north of San Diego, is like entering the home of any college-aged dude you’ve ever known. Doorman? Nope. Front door? Wide open. Juicy Couture–clad assistant furiously thumbing out text messages? Nuh-uh. Just some fix-it guy in the driveway – okay, a wallpaperer – who says, “In there,” before leaning into the back of his pickup truck.
So you creep through the foyer, past a suitcase – shirtsleeves and pant legs flowing out like tentacles, still half-unpacked from White’s recent 21st-birthday bash in Vegas – past an open box from Birdhouse (Tony Hawk’s company) containing a stack of new Shaun White skate decks, past a ping-pong table, some DVDs (Blades of Glory, The Ladies Man, and Scary Movie), finally, past a ransacked six-pack of Charmin toilet paper napping at the base of the staircase. You follow the sound of an electric bass plunking out notes and wind up in a black-and-white-velvet-wallpapered jam room.
Here’s the Olympic gold medalist perched on a sofa, playing the bass line for the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” tapping along with mismatched socks as his agent, Mark Ervin of IMG, fulfills the Meg White duties behind a drum kit. No tangible hellos are uttered. Just a nod, a smile, then White thrusts the bass into your hands, switches to electric guitar, and you’re officially jamming with the Flying Tomato.
This exercise, I would come to learn, is part of a phenomenon known simply as “Shaun Time.”
White has owned the house for more than a year – after moving out of the Carlsbad, California, home he purchased for his parents at 16 – but he hasn’t really lived in it that long. The two giant golden clamshells on the coffee table, picked out by his interior decorator, scream Long Island Mafia wife and hint not only at a slight lapse in quality control but also at how little time he spends here. “I come home and this stuff is like . . . somebody’s just added it,” White says, laughing only slightly. He asks Ervin to guesstimate how often he’s actually home, between skateboarding and snowboarding events and endorsement obligations. Ervin, who is around today to help White wade through a battery of local TV and radio interviews that will culminate with White throwing out the first pitch at tonight’s San Diego Padres game, considers the question for a moment, then says confidently, “17 percent.”
White’s introduction to the neighborhood, a gated community that was spared from the blazes that ravaged nearby areas last fall, sounds like a sitcom pilot waiting to happen. “The neighbors,” White says, “were like, ‘We were watching you and wondering when the parents were going to show up.’ ” He continues with a smile, “And the parents never showed up.”
So White took the opportunity to launch a two-pronged Welcome Me attack. First, he walloped the neighbors at ping-pong. When an older Indian couple invited him over, the wife, White says, made an “authentic dish” while White dismantled her husband on his own table. Then he took down a family of five, one by one, eventually skunking the father in the finale. “You know the rule that if you get a 7–0 lead, that’s the game?” White asks. “That’s what happened.”
Part two: He wrapped his (first) Lamborghini around a tree. His replacement pearl-white one is parked on a spotless lacquered garage floor. “Oh man,” White says, recalling the accident, “I was coming around the corner feeling like, Okay, I’m going pretty fast. And it just put me sideways, and all I saw was night and black smoke. My neighbor came out. I’d never met him before and I was like, ‘Hiiiii!’ ” Here, in telling this story, White again goes from zany to upstanding citizen almost as fast as his Lambo found the tree. “I just didn’t respect the speed,” he says matter-of-factly. “So I did the responsible thing and went to driving school.”
The point of stories like this seems to be for him to demonstrate that he’s grown-up. He sounds relieved to have turned 21, to leave the wunderkind status behind. As we play ping-pong in his living room, volleying lazily, he spills all the gory (read: G-rated) details of his coming-of-age Vegas party – the most sordid of which are that he basically donated all his money to the house at the Palms and a friend threw a steak at his leopard-skin pants – before his competitive side emerges and he annihilates me.
That’s something that hasn’t softened as he’s matured – his competitive drive – and lately he’s been on a monumental run. In which sport, you ask? The best answer might be juggling. Last summer, while his pro snowboarding peers readied themselves for the winter circuit with powder-chasing trips to New Zealand, White squeezed his training in around a full skateboarding season, a season in which his performance finally started catching up with his potential. He claimed X Games gold and Dew Tour Cup honors in his specialty, vert (as in vertical) skating. “He’s killing it,” says no less than Tony Hawk, the skate legend.
The questions now are: Will his snowboarding suffer? And what other worlds are left to conquer, now that he’s a king two times over? The answer to the first question will come, in large part, at January’s Winter X Games. “The thing I’m banking on,” says White, by way of strategizing, weeks before the start of the season, “is that since I have not been snowboarding and all my friends have, by the time we get to the first contest, those guys will be experienced and practiced, but not excited. And I’ll be like, ‘All right,’ ” he says, clapping his hands.
White doesn’t own a baseball so we throw a tennis ball around his backyard in preparation for his pitch at Petco Park tonight. Out here, there’s plenty of evidence of Shaun Time. There’s the pool that abruptly turns into a waterfall as it reaches the edge of a cliff, and there’s the hot tub in which he can watch DVDs on a giant retractable outdoor screen. But then, ever since the White family got a trampoline when Shaun was very young and his dad, Roger – known to his clan simply as the Rog – executed a flip on it, White’s whole life has been a form of recreation. “Soon enough I was doing double front flips,” says White. Then he pauses and reveals, perhaps, one of the secrets to his success: “Being upside down made me so relaxed.”
He turned pro in skateboarding at age 16, and in snowboarding he cemented his legend at 19, in 2006, with an Olympic gold in Turin, Italy. It almost didn’t happen. After falling on his first qualifying run on the halfpipe, White gave himself a scolding, a little mental pep talk. “I was like, ‘You have to land this,’ ” he says, adopting a mock-stern voice. “ ’You have to do this. You’re at the Olympics.’ ”
He did, of course, and the legend of the Flying Tomato was born. The tales, while not quite Timberlakean in scope, are impressive nonetheless (especially for a guy who, you know, looks like Carrot Top): Girls scribbled chalk invitations to prom on his family’s driveway. MTV’s Cribs kept rerunning his episode. The postman is only too happy to deliver piles of mail addressed simply to, “Shaun White, Olympic Athlete.” And thanks to his gold medal, flaming red hair, and quirky charisma, he’s become the face of brands such as Target, Burton, Volcom, Red Bull, HP, and American Express. All told, he pulls in about $10 million a year, according to one estimate.
What White has managed to do, through his success and magnetic personality, is elevate snowboarding’s stature and interest among the mainstream like no other American snowboarder has before. He’s become a sort of ambassador, and the value of that cannot be measured. Even a pro snowboarder like Jeremy Jones, who sniffs at competitions and traverses the globe shooting freestyle movies rather than “letting anyone judge” him, respects what White has done. “In competitive snowboarding, White is the best there’s ever been,” Jones says. “And the truth is, it brings money to the sport. Maybe someone ends up in a core shop because they saw Shaun on ESPN.”
White is more humble about the influence he’s had. “I think if you look at the past of snowboarding – it’s growing, growing, and growing,” he says. “It’s taken huge leaps, and one of the big leaps was the Olympics. And then for me to do what I did in Torino, I think, was a huge step, not just for me but for just getting people to recognize what snowboarding was. I went on vacation in Costa Rica, and the guys working at the hotel didn’t speak English but they were like, ‘You snowboard!’ And I’m like, ‘All right!’ ”
But until this past year, even after he had become a household name, White still struggled to find the same kind of success in skateboarding. In fact, he had a downright disappointing skate season on the heels of the Olympics. “I got dead last in the first [Dew Tour] contest. I was like, ‘D’oh!’ ” says White, doing his best Homer Simpson impression. “I just lost! Like hard!” Even his snowboarding slipped some, from X Games golds the year of the Olympics to silver and bronze last year in the superpipe and slopestyle, respectively, before he rallied for a gold in the halfpipe at the U.S. Open.
Had all the attention distracted him? “Yeah,” admits White, back inside the house, sitting on a Chesterfield couch in the living room, facing among other things a personalized crunk goblet that Lil Jon had bestowed on him. “I’d been doing all these photo shoots, TV, interviews, and then, I’d be like, OK, I need this week to practice. Then out of nowhere someone would call up to do something really amazing, and I was like, I gotta do it. I’m able to say no to a lot more now.”
White’s ability to balance demands is a skill not lost on his brother Jesse, who used to manage his Burton team and still helps him design the clothing lines it spawned. “Being on the inside of his world, I see how much he has to deal with,” Jesse says. “It never ends. To step up to the top of a pipe, clear your mind, and land a run when the pressure is on takes serious concentration, hunger, and confidence. He’s the only person I know who can do that.”
But what had escaped White until recently was something less concrete or even definable than success: cred. Particularly in skateboarding, where White was seen as something of an interloper.
“Shaun came into skating as a snowboarder, and for the first few years didn’t know the names of the tricks,” says Hawk, who has served as a mentor to White since meeting him at age six or seven, skating at the Encinitas, California, YMCA. “That rubbed guys the wrong way. He’s one of the best skateboarders, but he doesn’t live in that industry. In the last year he has earned their respect.”
“I have more confidence now, which I’ve never felt before in skating,” says White. “My first year, I felt like I didn’t belong. I think I’ve gotten more respect just sticking in there and taking a little hazing.”
“Nothing really that bad,” he laughs. “You just get a weird vibe from people. In snowboarding nobody really sweats someone else up at the top of the mountain, so you’re not used to that. If you picked out the top five guys in skating, every one of them has told me a story about how they first started and they weren’t welcome. You break in, and then you’re part of the scene. Now they obviously know I’m coming to the next event.”
When I ask Hawk if he thinks White would be better off doing one sport year-round, he doesn’t hesitate. “Honestly, I don’t think so. He has skills in both.”
In fact, he predicts that White will be the first skateboarder to land a 1080 – a spin of three full rotations – and topple Hawk’s (and arguably vert skating’s) biggest feat, the 900, which Hawk nailed in the 1999 X Games, before promptly retiring, at age 31. “I believe Shaun is the only skater capable of pulling it off,” Hawk says. “He’s the only one familiar with spinning that far, since he does it on snow.”
For his part, White is weary about discussing when, or if, it will happen. “It’s pretty hard,” he says. “It’s just so much spinning, and you’re not strapped in. I tried it once at the X Games and almost landed it. Then it became like everybody’s waiting for me to do it. It’s so much harder to pick a date and say, ‘I’m gonna do it then.’ I’d like to just go to a ramp and say, ‘Okay, today’s the day,’ film it, get it done.” He pauses, and adds somewhat beleagueredly, “It’s another thing in my saga.”
Ervin tells us that the driver has arrived to take us to the game, so White changes into some rock star–looking Volcom gear – cords, a T-shirt, and a black vest with diamonds on it – and we bail. In the car I ask him what’s left for him to accomplish, having already done so much at such a young age.
“I just want to be the strongest man alive,” he deadpans. “Do squat thrusts.” He chuckles, then passes on that he’s heard skateboarding may become part of the Olympics in 2012. “How would that be?” he marvels. “Skating in the Olympics? It would be like winter and summer gold medals in X Games on a whole other level.”
Hey, it’s fuckin’ what’s-his-name,” booms a voice from the dugout. It’s Padres rookie third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, grinning his face off. Like several of his teammates, he’s watching White get pre-pitch tips from the club’s star righty Jake Peavy for the local Fox affiliate’s pregame show.
The stands aren’t full yet, but several kids (many of whom are redheaded) and young women trickle down the grandstand to get White’s attention. I take the opportunity to ask Ervin what he thinks is next for White, beyond competing. “I’m starting to get sent a lot of scripts,” he says. As I watch, White joke naturally with Peavy on camera, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. White puts a stop to the pregame filming only when another group with a video camera approaches. After a few seconds, he walks toward me, half-laughing and half-grimacing. “They wanted me to do shout-outs. I don’t do shout-outs.”
Under the grandstands White seems to know almost everyone – a surgeon who did work on his knee, a young female Padres employee whom White admits he’d had a crush on in grade school – and he gives them all, along with total strangers, ample time.
“Throwing out the first pitch?” they’d ask.
“Yep,” he’d say. “Nooooo pressure.” White spends half his life upside down at high rates of speed, and all afternoon he’s been gravely concerned with whether he’ll “rip it” when throwing a baseball 60 feet.
When the time comes he delivers a decent strike, and as he walks off the field he tells a couple of guys in Padres uniforms, “Good luck tonight.” They inform him they’re just ball boys.
We join some publicists and a kid who won a Shaun White look-alike contest (hence all the redheads) inside the California Grown corporate box in left field. Jesse and his girlfriend arrive, and we all settle into the seats in front of the box to watch the game. Jesse tells a story about going to a Padres game as a kid, and the Rog dove over a couple of fellow fans to barehand a home-run ball.
“I think Shaun got a lot of Dad’s competitive nature, his drive, and his strength,” Jesse says. “It makes me laugh to think about how similar they are. They even walk alike. Seriously, it’s really weird. But they are different in their ability to assess situations. The Rog is great, but he has definitely made some wrong decisions when on a snowboard. Just ask him about breaking his nose at Mammoth. Shaun has this knack of seeing things beforehand, assessing them, and making the right choice.”
The Rog, who cops only to a separated shoulder at Mammoth when I phone him later, thinks White’s levelheadedness stems from growing up in a tight-knit family. “We were together so much that the kids never really were able to get off on the wrong foot, like hanging out where they shouldn’t. If it wasn’t a competition we were going to, it was an event, like an MTV thing where he wanted to go and skate the ramp.” Still, the elder White is amazed at how his son can juggle so much now. “It’s like Donkey Kong, where the barrels come from one side or the other, and you climb the ladder. I was thinking, How long can this go on? And it’s done nothing but accelerate.”
Since more barrels could come in the form of acting gigs, I ask White about his prospects in the field.
“I could see myself doing some of that stuff,” he says. His work thus far includes an HP commercial and a Scorsese-helmed AmEx spot, where behind the scenes, White says, fellow thespian Andre Agassi took one look at his red mane, shook his head sadly, and lamented, “You’re gonna have that until you’re 80.”
“Mark doesn’t even send me half of the scripts,” White continues. “I’ve gotten tons that I just don’t think are that rad.”
Because they want you to be Spicoli 2.0?
“Kinda,” he says. “I just figure you gotta bust into it in a good way instead of just doing it ’cause it’s there.”
Young fans line up on the catwalk facing our seats and call White’s name. Older guys from the box next to us stream over for pictures and autographs. The mom of the look-alike asks White to record the outgoing message on her son’s phone, and he complies. He graciously ducks into the box again to fulfill some phone interview duties. Ervin looks at me and says, “We could be anywhere, Moscow, and this is the reaction he gets. I don’t know how he does it. But he likes it.”
When I look into the box, all I see are a mess of red hair and a gigantic smile as White jabbers away on the phone. It dawns on me that all of this is Shaun Time as well. What good is being a star if you can’t relish it?
After the game, on the way out, I ask White how he would rate his life, and without pausing too long, he gives it “an 8 or 9.” I knew he wouldn’t say 10. That probably won’t come until he wins an Oscar. Or until he hears about some kid in some jam room somewhere in America trying to learn to play a Shaun White riff on a Shaun White guitar.
As we pile into the SUV, heading back to the hills, White considers the rating again, and adds, “I’m just trying to have the most fun I can right now.”