MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — Mega celeb Shaun White has a force field of handlers, agents and sponsors to shield him from the masses, if not the bone-jarring falls of his sport.
Mom Cathy White does enough worrying about snowboarding accidents for everyone. She acknowledged as much at Mammoth recently when asked how her son had become the biggest name in action sports and beyond.
“I don't know where it came from because I don't like him snowboarding,” Cathy said.
She might hold that opinion alone. With ski star Lindsey Vonn sidelined because of a knee injury, White, 27, enters the Sochi Games as America's most captivating Olympian.
“He's a property that the Olympics and NBC can rally around,” said David Carter, director of USC's Sports Business Institute.
The Olympic movement has no greater crossover star, and that is no accident. White — who grew up in Carlsbad surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding — already was a famous, wealthy X Games athlete when he began chasing Olympic gold medals in 2006.
He appealed to a new generation of pimply faced kids who didn't care for mainstream sports. But White also attracted gray hairs equally awed by those “big air” flips that leave his mother ashen-faced.
It's exactly what the International Olympic Committee planned when including snowboard and ski disciplines already popular in the extreme sports world in an effort to cash in on the action. With White going for a third consecutive halfpipe gold medal in Sochi, the emphasis on extreme has been ramped up with the introduction of more edgy ski and snowboard events.
The winner of 15 Winter X Games gold medals understands what it means to go big when the world is watching.
“This is what kicked it off for us,” he said of the Olympics platform. “They got us into the spotlight.”
It made White even bigger, if that were humanly possible. The limber, slight-framed athlete, who now trains at Northstar-at-Tahoe, is a franchise unto himself.
He remains perched on that icy ledge of commercialism and competition, continuing to perform better than most while carefully branding his name.
He's chief executive of Shaun White Enterprises, which has a clothing line at Target, and sponsorship deals with Burton Snowboards and Oakley sunglasses, among others.
The White Collection at Burton offers signature boards, boots, pants, hoodies, beanies, backpacks, socks, and, you guessed it, thermal underwear.
His latest project — on hold during the Olympics — is a band he started with longtime friends called Bad Things, which was signed by Warner Bros.
“If you stick to the same thing too much you lose motivation,” White said. “You get plain and bland and it has given me that distraction and I've come back excited.”
White re-enters the Olympic scene with more gold on his mind if less hair on his head. The once-famous, hippie-long red locks are neatly trimmed and the moniker “Flying Tomato” a relic of the past.
White is more accessible to the public, more congenial to his rivals.
Some suggest the ego has landed.
“He reminds me of the transcendent nature of a Tony Hawk,” USC's Carter said of the famous skateboarder. “As he got older, Shaun became more sophisticated and his business interests diversified and he never did anything dumb.”
Well, at least nothing like Tiger Woods and a host of other celebrity athletes. White's misdemeanors in the past eight years involve crashing a Lamborghini into a tree and getting arrested in 2012 for vandalism and public intoxication at a Nashville, Tenn., hotel where he pulled a fire alarm.
Older than most of his competitors, it seems he still has no equals in the halfpipe, where White hopes to become the first American man to win a Winter Olympics event three consecutive times.
He also qualified in slopestyle, a new Olympic event that involves gliding along rails and launching off jumps to perform more circus stunts.
“This has been the craziest journey to get here from doing (both) slope and pipe,” White said the day he qualified in the halfpipe at Mammoth Mountain. “I love that about this time around, it's not the same. If it was just halfpipe, maybe I would have procrastinated.”
Perhaps, but that's doubtful for the peerless flyer. White seems too preoccupied with success to let anything slip. He has been a professional snowboarder for 13 years, a pro skateboarder for a decade. But, really, White has been competing since he was a child prodigy.
“I can't tell you the last time I didn't feel hunted,” he said. “Ever since I was a kid I was someone to beat. For me, that was something that inspired me. I knew they were looking at me and I was looking at them.”
After he won in Vancouver, White fielded the “What's next?” questions.
“I really couldn't say,” he recalled. “I guess go for another one. That's what I love about this sport: every time you turn around there is something brand new that presents itself.”
Which leads his dad to wonder if Sochi is the end. Roger White said his son and coach already joke about going to Korea for the 2018 Olympics.
As long as he keeps winning, why stop? White rarely has endeared himself to other riders, but he doesn't come to fraternize. He comes to win.
“I don't remember the last contest I wasn't trying to win it all,” White said. “I don't really look at any other spot but that.”