It’s gotten to the point where Shaun White, the 23-year-old embodiment of youth-culture marketing potential—not to mention two-time Olympic gold medalist—has to sit with his back to the door in restaurants. Right after his win in Vancouver, he began his media-adoration victory lap, which culminated in a miserable-looking appearance at the New York Stock Exchange to ring the closing bell. “I don’t think you could turn on a TV without seeing me,” he says. Now he’s at Pastis, waiting for me, hiding behind that long red hair, thinking perhaps I’d mistake a similarly carrot-topped woman sitting nearby for him. “Once I was in a bathroom washing my hands,” he says, “and this guy walked in and was like, ‘Oh, God! I’m sorry, ma’am.’ I thought that was pretty funny.”
White is not insecure about such things. He’s snowboarding’s Federer, or Jordan, or Armstrong. To watch him is to know he will prevail. His jumps are substantially higher, his landings cleaner, his flips more awesome. He had his first sponsor at age 7, went pro at 13, and won his first gold in Torino at 19. At Vancouver, he had already secured the gold when he decided to do a second run, ending in a triumphant Double McTwist 1260—which involves two flips and three and a half rotations. He is the only person in the world who can perform it.
According to Forbes, White raked in $8 million last year from endeavors like his video game and his clothing lines for Target and Burton, making him the richest athlete at the Winter Games. For Target, White slapped a picture of his bulldog, Rambo, wearing sunglasses, on a T-shirt. “And then I look around and there’s all these people wearing my dog!” he says. “It’s just hilarious that these massive companies allow us to do whatever we want.”
And that people buy it. White is such a celebrity that last year, his sponsor Red Bull built him a private half-pipe deep in the Colorado backwoods, accessible only by helicopter, just so he could try out new tricks (and fall in the process) without worrying he’d end up on YouTube.
White owns a Lamborghini and a seven-bedroom house just north of San Diego that he uses only for storage and parties. He’s thinking about buying a place in New York, too, since he has to come here to promote Shaun White so much. Plus, the city’s good for skateboarding-as-meditation: “It’s funny, because people see me and they’re like, ‘Isn’t that …?’ and then I’m gone. I basically just skate until I get lost and then I show the cabdriver the hotel key.” His other therapy is shopping. “When I have time off, I can’t handle it. I can’t relax. I’ll go buy shit.” Weeks before Olympic qualifiers, he “panicked” and bought four surfboards in an hour and almost took off to Hawaii.
Still, he’s gained some wisdom. His teammate Scotty Lago, the 22-year-old winner of the bronze, left Vancouver in disgrace after photos surfaced of a girl fellating his medal, which was positioned over his crotch. “This is his first Olympics and maybe he’s not used to such limelight,” White says. “I’ve learned to conduct myself a certain way in public. And obviously I don’t wild out too much.” He doesn’t even drink coffee, preferring Earl Grey tea.
But there’s danger all around. In December, his biggest rival, Kevin Pearce, had a bad fall and suffered brain injuries that kept him out of the Games. White himself hit his head on the lip of the half-pipe hard enough that his helmet flew off during practice for this year’s ESPN Winter X Games, which he still won. “You shake it off,” he says. “You never want to think about it, obviously. I mean, you need such confidence to complete these tricks. Right when you start to doubt yourself is when you’re in trouble.”
His mentor is Tony Hawk, the skateboarding legend who quit competing at 31. “I always assumed, you know, that maybe I would cut it even earlier than that. Maybe 26,” says White. But what about the next Olympics? “I’d love to,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll be over the hill or what. I mean, I’ll only be 27. So I figure I can. I don’t really know how old that is.”