When we first saw Shaun White take flight on a halfpipe, how was anyone to know he would become the face of snowboarding and a three-time Olympic gold medal champion?
Now, starting his fifth Olympics at age 35, he's looking to put an exclamation point on the end of his legacy in what he says are his final Winter Games.
Now a veteran, White told TODAY's Craig Melvin he's not as fearless as he once was, but he's found happiness off the slopes with his girlfriend Nina Dobrev.
"It's taken a toll"
At the 2006 Games in Torino, 19-year-old White dazzled crowds with his exhilarating tricks and flowing red hair.
A competitor in five Winter Olympic Games (2006, 2010, 2014, 2018, and now 2022), some say White has completely changed the game for Winter sports, and serves as an inspiration to the future legacy of snowboarders.
Like many other Olympians who feel an immense pressure and high expectation, White felt like it was the right time to experience life beyond the Olympics.
"My whole life I’ve been looked at as somewhat superhuman because I do these things."
shaun white to Craig melvin on today.
"I’ve always kind of assumed that I would get a sign, whether it was my body or whether ... my motivation wasn’t there, or the tricks just got so heavy I wasn’t ready, but I couldn’t handle it anymore, I couldn’t deal," he told Craig.
Tony Hawk was a source of inspiration for White
He also shared that talking to pro skateboarder Tony Hawk helped him come to his decision about this Olympics being his final one.
"(Tony has) always been an amazing guy and somebody that’s been through it all. I remember talking to him, and he was like, 'Man, I retired at 32.' And he’s like, 'I wish I would’ve done it sooner,'" White told Craig.
Hawk also told White that he feels like he did more outside of his competitive life than he ever did in it, which inspired White to follow in his footsteps.
Training in a pandemic
White says although training for his last Olympics in a pandemic presented its challenges, he and his team did a good job of "making the best of it," especially since snowboarding isn't a sport that involves close contact.
"We’re already wearing masks and goggles, and except for the chairlift maybe, you know, there's not too much interaction on the mountain," he said.
But traveling presented some challenges. White said he usually would go up to Canada to train, but since the borders have been closed, it wasn't possible. Luckily, he said they were able to find some halfpipes in Switzerland, which helped him prepare for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics — just maybe not the way he planned.
"I'm so thankful COVID didn't affect me like it's affected so many. I'm honestly just so thankful to be here and be healthy... and I'm ready to put on a performance," he told TODAY while at athletes village.
Finding romance with Nina Dobrev
Off the slopes, White found happiness in a relationship with actor Nina Dobrev. White said the pair met at a seminar in Florida and hit it off.
"And then, you know, the world pretty much shut down. And I was, like, 'OK, so how much do you really like me? Because we’re going to hunker down here for the long haul,'" he said with a laugh. That was about two years ago.
In Beijing, White has shared that Dobrev put photos in his luggage to remind him of home.
Despite the challenges COVID-19 presented to Olympians this year, White is proud of the work he and his teammates have done to prepare. Even though he described feeling "great pressure" to compete and look his best, he said he can look back on the Olympics with a laugh and a smile.
He described it as akin to the feeling of finishing high school. "It’s like when you know that high school is ending. And you’re like, 'Well, I actually don’t ever have to go to school again if I don’t want to,'" he said.