February 13th, 2006 19:49 EST
When Tomatos Fly
The United States Olympic team has a new face today. It’s freckled, smiling, and not a little bit “stoked.”
It belongs to Shaun White, the 19 year-old snowboarder whose gold medal victory in Sunday’s halfpipe event was a welcome reminder of what the Olympics are truly about. There was no judging controversy, no drama, no pretension—just a California teenager with a dream, a supportive family and a trademark mop of bright red hair.
Of course, it all could have turned out quite differently.
Heading into the event on a winning streak, White was heavily favored to win gold. A true wunderkind, he turned pro at the tender age of 13. Affectionately nicknamed “The Flying Tomato” in honor of his red, shaggy hair, White entered the games with a ready-made legion of fans. His triumphs at the X-Games, where the accomplished skateboarder is the only athlete to compete in both winter and summer events, further served to cement his status as one of America’s most popular young athletes.
Despite the enormous pressure of competition, White is known for his calm composure and genuine sense of fun.
No one expected the Olympics to be anything but smooth boarding. Yet somehow, a little sliver of that pressure on his gangly shoulders crept inside White’s armor.
The first of two qualifying runs before the halfpipe final began as usual for White. However, in a highly uncharacteristic moment he flubbed the landing to one of his jumps, hitting the pipe’s ledge.
Suddenly, it looked as though The Flying Tomato’s dream was about to go splat.
If White erred again on his second run, there was a strong chance that he would fail to qualify for the final.
There would be no chance for gold, no chance for glory.
He later told reporters, “I never really get nervous, but I was kind of tripped out after the first run.”
White’s coach, Bud Keene, sensed something was off about his prodigy. The two made laps on the chairlift and worked to stay loose before the second run.
With regained calm, White took to the snow once again for the most important make-or-break moment of his career.
The run went off with nary a hitch, a relieved White happily wiping mock-sweat from his helmet. He was not out of the clear though.
The battle for the gold was just beginning.
But by now, the confident, fun-loving Shaun was back. Olympics Shmolympics. Taking to the pipe with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blasting over the loudspeakers, White dazzled the crowd and judges, at times soaring 25 feet over the edge. His final score of 46.8 out of a possible 50 secured him the gold medal. Teammate and friend Danny Kass proudly took the silver.
With a combined look of shock and pure happiness, White basked in his golden moment, joined by the family who has supported him since the beginning.
And then the tears came.
White has been a fighter since birth. He was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a heart defect that causes oxygenated blood to mix with unoxygenated blood. As a result, overall blood flow is decreased.
He endured two operations before his first birthday, and bears a six-inch scar on his ribcage to this day. Unable to cradle her infant son because of the risk of infection, White’s mother Cathy would often hold his tiny feet.
The White family has sacrificed much for the sake of young Shaun’s talent. In the early days, they took him to train every Friday in Mammoth, California. To save money, the family—Shaun, Cathy, his father Roger, brother Jesse and sister Kari—would eat and sleep in their 1964 Econoline van.
It was all out of love.
White’s attempts to play it cool following his win evaporated when his loved ones, eyes red from tears of joy, crowded around him in celebration.
“It was just tears. It wasn’t crying. And it wasn’t my fault. The family came up and their eyes were just beet red.”
The champion added, “I’m so overwhelmed. I really understand what this whole competition is about. For me, it’s just about family. And the whole family is here in Italy, supporting me."
With millions in endorsement deals, world-wide athletic acclaim, a loving family, and now, an Olympic gold medal, Shaun White has it all.
A date with current crush, figure skater Sasha Cohen, would be pretty sweet too.
“I'm hoping Sasha digs gold medals,” he said with a smile.
With a little luck, maybe she’ll dig the flame-haired boy wearing the medal too.