A two-time Olympic champion will be in the NBC broadcast booth commentating on gymnastics during the women's individual all-around final Thursday. Not much of a surprise there. But this athlete, known for inventing some of the most difficult and dangerous flip combinations in his sport, has never set foot in a gymnastics arena.
"I'm hoping to keep it light and funny," said two-time snowboard halfpipe gold medalist Shaun White on Monday afternoon, a day after arriving in London to attend his first summer Olympics.
"I know what it's like to put a run together, or a routine, and how to deal with the pressure of competing and shaking it off if something goes wrong," said White. "We compete in such different sports, but we all have so much in common."
White is taking the summer off from snowboarding and competitive skateboarding to heal a nagging knee injury -- he plans to have arthroscopic knee surgery when he returns home -- and had planned to attend the Games as a spectator and ambassador for his sponsor, Target, with whom he is celebrating a 10-year anniversary here in London.
"I'm hoping to see some bands and visit some of my favorite venues," said White, a huge music fan who also plays guitar. "London is the birthplace of British rock and roll. Zeppelin, The Who, Eric Clapton, everybody came from here. It's going to be a good time."
When he found out what sports he'd be commentating, White did a bit of research but also wants to keep his reporting spontaneous and allow himself the opportunity to learn from the athletes he's covering. "I'd want somebody to know a thing or two about my sport before trying to talk to me about it, but I also know part of the entertainment is that I don't know a lot about these sports," White said. "I'll learn how the scoring in gymnastics works from a former Olympian or someone who's currently competing, and viewers will learn with me. I want to be prepared, but I also want it to be spontaneous."
When he stepped off the plane at Heathrow, White said his initial feeling was one, surprisingly, of stress. "I was tripping out. I got all uneasy," he said. "I felt super awkward and unprepared. Not for the commentating, but because I'm always competing. I started thinking someone was going to run up and put a ball in my hand and say, 'Go! Compete!' or make me get on the uneven bars."
When fans started questioning what he was doing in London, reality finally struck him. "I'm just a spectator. But people were curious. They wanted to know if a skateboard ramp is going up somewhere," White said, referring to the possibility of halfpipe skateboarding -- a sport in which White has won two X Games gold medals-- one day being included in the Olympics. "It would be crazy to see skateboarding in the Brazil Games, but I tell them right now, I'm not an athlete."
In his down time, White says he plans to check out as many new sports as his schedule allows, including women's weightlifting. "On the way over here, my brother told me I have to see it. He said it's insane," White said. "I've been glued to the TV at lunch and dinner. I'm learning about so many new sports."
He has also learned a lot about interviewing in his years as a professional athlete that he plans to bring to his new gig. (Like the power of mentioning an unwelcomed nickname on national TV.)
"I will obviously keep it relaxed. I think a lot of times, when reporters harp on things too hard and try to get too deep into something someone doesn't want to talk about, that can get awkward," he said. "I won't ask how they find their Zen moment --'So, do you envision your grandmother speaking softly to you before you compete? -- or my favorite question, 'What are you thinking about in the air?' I can tiptoe around asking real questions and being funny. And the athletes will trust me because they'll think, 'Hey, he's another athlete.'
"But should they? I mean, I might be writing a nightly gossip column."