An hour before Olympic gold medalist Shaun White was slotted to take the stage at Hogg Memorial Auditorium, students whispered excitedly about, “The Flying Tomato” and, “The greatest snowboarder of all time” as they waited in a line that wrapped around the building.
White spoke about his snowboarding career and struggles with personal motivation Monday night in a conversation hosted by Texas Cowboys Lectureship.
White began snowboarding at age six. He said he recalls his family of five cramming into motels on weekends, his mother cooking pasta or beans on the stovetop and setting off fire alarms, all to make it to the slopes as often as possible. White said he quickly drew attention for being small and fast, and he gained his first sponsorship at age seven.
“At that point, I didn’t really think too much of myself, but then I realized, ‘Oh, I can win something,’” White said.
White went on to compete in the X Games for the first time at age 13. Today, he has a medal count of 23. He also received a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in 2006, 2010 and 2018.
“I love (snowboarding) because it is the one thing that can completely take you out of anything,” White said. “It’s so peaceful to just focus on one thing.”
When White goes airborne, he said he often hums Christmas songs in his head and thinks of the next move to create a balance of preparation and mindlessness.
“If you focus too hard, it’s too calculated,” White said. “It’s all a feeling.”
His fourth place placement at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was a wake up call, so White said he spent the next few years trying to make his failure “the greatest thing that has happened to (him)” before competing in PyeongChang in 2018.
“It’s a lot easier to do a bunch of sit-ups,” White said. “It’s a lot harder to fix your mental issues and motivation.”
Sarah Bookout, speech language pathology senior, brought her snowboard to the event, hoping White would sign it. While she had no such luck, Bookout said she was thrilled to hear from an athlete whom she has admired since she started snowboarding 13 years ago.
“I really related to him when they asked him to describe snowboarding,” Bookout said. “You aren’t really thinking of anything, but you have the melody of a song in your head. You have to … get your mindset right first.”
Tadia Franko, rhetoric and writing senior, has been a fan of White since his first Olympic appearance, and said she admired his humanity.
“He’s a great snowboarder and a great person in general, and that really showed tonight,” Franko said. “He is so humble and there is so much passion there.”
While White loves to snowboard, he said he is constantly challenging himself to do other things, such as skateboarding and performing music, just to prove to himself that he can. White said trying things and failing is essential to growth as an athlete and as a person.
“You learn what not to do (through) mistakes,” White said. “You have to make mistakes.”