Shaun White Weighs in on the Future of Snowboarding
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Shaun White has given the snowboarding world countless epic moments on the snow, both on the slope and in the pipe, and still hasn’t officially relinquished the title of world’s best halfpipe snowboarder. Last season, he dominated in the halfpipe at the Burton U.S. Open. Next up: He plans to get busy in this season’s X Games, return to the U.S Open and eyes a spot on next season’s Olympic team.
In addition, White’s moved into the business realm. Since purchasing the international snowboarding big air tour Air + Style in 2014, White has gone big, just like his performance style. Big air contests are quick by design; one massive jump and trick by the fearless with and without natural snow. White added a third stop to the international competition in Los Angeles in 2015, added women to the mix this year and is looking to gain FIS World Cup Olympic qualification status.
White even knows a thing or two about stuff we mortals know nothing about, like the 2022 Winter Olympics. OZY spoke with him about the future of snowboarding, up-and-comers and the most underrated places to ride. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What do you see for the future of snowboarding?
In 2018, the Olympics will introduce big air snowboarding, which is exactly our event, to the games. Overall, I think the combination of expanded snowboarding events in the Olympics and more accessible events are the key to moving snowboarding forward as an industry. Pretty soon we may not even be on mountains anymore. These days, even indoor training is possible. It’s extremely impactful, bringing these mountain-based events to the city.
Obviously, nothing compares to being on the natural slope and everything that goes with it. A half pipe is something even I struggle to see in a city setting, simply because it’s so massive and requires so much snow to build, but I think scaffolding jumps will be what the future generations could end up riding on.
Can you share some inside info about the 2022 games?
Now, I’m not positive about this, but I’m pretty sure the 2022 Winter Olympics in China will have a scaffolding jump for the big air competition. I believe it will be in the Bird’s Nest [Beijing National Stadium], which is where Air + Style holds its first stop annually.
Who are a couple of up-and-comers you have your eye on?
As far as young riders to watch, they’re both pipe riders. Chinese snowboarder He Wei has told me he learned to snowboard by watching videos of me riding. His ingenuity — to figure out snowboarding at this level without actually riding to learn, but by watching and applying what he saw — is so cool to me. Ayumu Hirano is exciting to watch because he started out as this prodigy who was supposed to be the next best thing. It’s always hard to live up to those expectations. I know how it is; you’re 15 years old and people are asking if you’re going to beat Shaun in the next X Games. But now I think he’s finally coming into his own.
On the big air side of things, Mark McMorris, Ståle [Sandbech] and Yuki [Kadono] are mainstream. The next generation of slope riders will grow up emulating them. Their style, their tricks, their exploits will motivate the future riders. As far as the halfpipe, which is a totally different world, IPod [Iouri Podladtchikov] is a guy who’s a wildcard. He’s either crushing or having a tough day. He’s always got a chance to come into a competition with something new and blow the field away. And, obviously, I’m still in the mix.
What is the current state of Air+Style and what major takeaways from year one and two have helped the event progress?
Our first go at it, we picked a spot that we thought was going to be great (the Rose Bowl in Pasadena), but it turned out to have a lot of issues. There were coordinating issues, curfews and restrictions to work around. We learned what people liked, what they didn’t like and how to augment their experience further. The awesome musical guests and little technical details are going to help us optimize our footprint at the Coliseum to make this the best Air+Style yet. And I say all that before I get to the top-notch snowboarders. Mark McMorris, Seb Toutant, Stale Sandbech. All the biggest riders in slope right now will be dropping in.
When will women close the gender gap when it comes to big air competitions?
A few years ago, when I first took over Air + Style, we reached out to women to invite them to compete, but there wasn’t enough interest. The girls didn’t want to hit the jump, but they were definitely invited. Now that women’s snowboarding has progressed to a certain point, we’re dipping our toe by inviting them to compete in Austria [in February] as a trial.
Overall, it’s been great to see this new wave of talent flood the women’s ranks. I think the men’s progression has been so crazy, to quads and 1800s and all that crazy stuff. In comparison, women have fallen behind a bit, but it’s awesome to see the women blowing up on the slope and in the pipe. As for the progression gap, that’s really up to them. It’s up to the women riders to see who among them is ready to step up and be the best. Who is tired enough of coming in second to go bigger and throw bigger tricks and challenge that No. 1 spot?
What’s the most underrated place to go snowboarding?
Big Bear. Everyone in Los Angeles thinks they have to go to Aspen or somewhere in Colorado for good snow. But one of the best snowboarders in the world comes from Big Bear. That’s where I ride. You forget it’s right there. If you want something a little more exotic, Japan is incredible. There is amazing snow in the Far East.
Who was your most influential teacher in snowboarding?
My older brother, Jesse, was my biggest teacher. We had a difference in mindset; he wasn’t a guy who dealt with pressure as well as I did, but that was really the only difference between us. He was so good at riding. He had his sponsors at one point. He’s seven years older than me, so I was learning all the tricks he was learning, but seven years younger, so that really helped when it came to competition.
Have you taken on any apprentices?
I’m the absolute worst coach. I describe everything in feelings. “You’ll feel this” or “It’ll feel like that” is the only way I know how to verbally express snowboarding. It just doesn’t work.
What does the future hold for you as a rider, and what is your biggest goal for Air + Style?
As a rider, I will definitely be competing at Olympic trials to see if I can make the team. There’s a Grand Prix event at Mammoth Mountain I will be attending, and I’m attending X Games this year. I think the goal for Air + Style, aside from becoming an FIS World Cup stop, is to grow as a world tour. We already are one, but I’d say the goal is six to seven stops, spread around the world for the most part. Korea, after the Olympics, would be a great candidate. Their love of pop music fits right in with what Air + Style is. Maybe something in South America, another in Europe; that all remains to be seen.
A previous version of this article has been corrected to note big air contests can take place with and without natural snow. The article now also clarifies that the Air + Style contest has added a third (not seventh) stop and is still looking to gain FIS World Cup Olympic qualification status. Both mistakes were editing errors.