A Darker Shade of White

On a wet-hot Friday in late June, Louisville is the epicenter of giveaway culture. The Dew Action Sports Tour—a spectacle of motorcycles and skateboards and trick bikes—is being held inside and outside Freedom Hall. But the main draw, clearly, is free stuff. They're lining up for packets of acne medication, soda served in specimen cups, posters, decals, snacks, mini Slim Jims. Thousands stalk the grounds, stuffing plastic bags with the fervid zeal of hungry orphans set loose at Halloween.

Action sports are hot, and this is part of the appeal. The ascension of these previously cultish activities into the world of big-money commodification stems in part from the idea that everybody owns a piece of it. The athletes are accessible and accommodating, and even if you don't care about the results, you can head home with a bellyful of beef stick and caffeinated soda, carrying a bag straining under the weight of Oxy packets and Volcom stickers. And while you're resting from the big day, you can always play a video game featuring your favorite action sports stars.

Obviously, this world needs a mascot, and right now he's in the middle of freebie heaven, sitting inside a fake colonial house with fake flowerpots hanging from fake windows. There are exactly 175 people in line outside, waiting for the chance to funnel through the fake house and get his signature. The line, carefully counted by security, is a cross section of action sports fans: teenage girls ignoring the sweat that's sending their makeup down to their chins, moms with antsy preteen kids, young men whose life theory seems to be no tattoo too outrageous, no facial hair too creative.

They are waiting, impatiently, for Shaun White. He is a cartoon character sprung to life, a snowboarder-skateboarder with Irish setter hair and the most disarming manner in the history of famous 19-year-olds. He's an Olympic gold medalist in snowboard halfpipe whose quick wit and ironic manner are perfect for a generation whose attitude is molded by equal parts Jon Stewart and Adult Swim. He's also one of the world's best in skateboard vert, a daunting, dangerous event populated by older, hard-bitten guys who got where they are by never declining a dare.

White's two-sport prowess makes him marketing nirvana, a tattoo-free kid whose crossover appeal can sell everything from computers (in an HP commercial that doesn't see the need to show his face) to the in-your-face Volcom T-shirts popular with the skate rats at the local park. And he's managed to become a star without learning how to act like one. It's a gift and a dilemma, really. "Now when I check into a hotel room, there's a basket with all my favorite snacks," he says. "They ask me, 'Any special requests?' They act like I'm a loser when I say no. I've got to figure something out, like, 'Only brown M&M's,' or 'Snickers, slightly unwrapped so they're easy to access.' "

The genesis of his fame lies in Torino, Italy, where White won his gold medal with a comeback performance that made his name (and the NBChyped Flying Tomato nickname) as well-known as his hair. It was yet another milestone on the extreme-goes-mainstream evolutionary time line. Now he tells stories of girls asking him to their high school proms by writing invitations in chalk in front of his house in Carlsbad, Calif. There was also the girl who, during last year's X Games, tossed her cell phone to him and said she'd call it later so they could hang out. He's met Tom Cruise, and those who witnessed the encounter couldn't tell who was more excited.

His chats with the Today show hosts at the Olympics were so frequent, he can say, "It's too bad Katie's gone. We had a lot of fun." Most remarkably, his charm allows him to make that statement without igniting his audience's gag reflex. But the self-deprecation and the smiles are hiding something. Fame, and the way White handles it, is only half the story. Something lurks beneath the caricature, and it's the cold heart of a fierce competitor. The trick is to find it.

SKATEBOARD VERT is an event for the hardest of the hard-core. What looks glamorous in midair looks far different when the trick fails and the board flies and the skater lands hard on his knees and skids to the bottom of the ramp. At its heart, vert is a grim world of longtime skaters who are as territorial as they are tough. Practice is a succession of bruises interrupted by the occasional broken bone.

There aren't many vert skaters, either—maybe 20 or 30 at the highest level of competition. This year marks the 12th X Games (Aug. 3-6 in LA), and many of the vert competitors have been around for all of them. Bucky Lasek and Andy Macdonald are 33, Bob Burnquist is 29, Rune Glifberg is 31. The majority look like carnival barkers who found something better to do with their time. The old guard, in general, resents the Nikefication of skateboarding, preferring to see the sport retain the scarred-knee grunge of its progenitors.

To excel in this environment, you must be fearless or tireless or tough, yet we've gotten so used to White's unassuming face and flip-the-hair smile that it's easy to lose track of a salient fact: He must be a cutthroat SOB to barge in and succeed as a part-timer. It's even harder to do it as a part-timer who happens to be a gold medal snowboarder who knows Couric by her first name. "That guy's kind of deep in there," White says. "I mean, he's there, but I don't think about it very often. You can tell when I get quiet and really focused. I kind of go someplace else."

He's been skating and snowboarding since he was 6. Snowboarding is his main gig, and in 2005, he snowboarded for nine months, including a three-month trip to New Zealand to make full use of the calendar, and skated for three. He became a pro skater at 16, about three years after he turned pro in the snow, but didn't become a threat until last year. That's when he won the first Dew Tour event in Louisville and was second at the X Games in LA. He also won this year's July 15 Dew Tour event in Denver. Those finishes lend credence to the idea that White could be the biggest thing in skating since Tony Hawk. But his accomplishments didn't go over quite as well among the full-timers. They didn't appreciate the intrusion, and they let him know.

"When I won that event, it shook things up," White says. "Breaking into that group is tough. And to break in as the guy who snowboards all year …" Here the sentence hangs as he pauses, wondering how much to reveal. Finally, choosing caution, he says, "Some of them had a hard time with it."

Even the stuff that sounds minor carries a sharp enough point to break skin. For instance, snowboarders have their boards waxed and tweaked by tech reps. There is no such thing in skateboarding, so White's opponents would see him tending to his own board and ask, "Hey, where's your tech rep?" Silly maybe, and predictable, but it pointed out the difference between the two sports. More important, it showed the skaters' disdain for what they see as the prissiness and glitz of snowboarding.

Pressed for more specifics, White pauses, then refuses to elaborate. He seems to be looking around for his publicist before saying, "Things are better now." Adds Jesse White, Shaun's 26-year-old brother and manager, "It's normal hazing, like the old quarterback to the young quarterback. He probably gets more of it than the others, but it's not like they're egging the house or anything."

Shaun shrugs off the hassles. He doesn't want to be seen as a complainer, probably because it would make matters worse. Still, the barbs baffle Team White, not for their content but for what they represent. "It bugs me that they don't understand him," says Jesse. "They don't take the time to understand that something different is going on. With sponsorships, there's so much more money coming in." Much as Tiger Woods became every golfer's best friend (even if they despised him) when he caused tourney purses to skyrocket, White's presence has elevated the profile and increased the earning power of every competitive skater and snowboarder. It's instructive, though, to chronicle White's nonverbal response to the harassment: In short, he went to work.

Back at his home ramp, at the Encinitas YMCA, with the taunts of his competitors serving as the soundtrack, he got angry. He also got quiet and focused, and his inner SOB took charge. Over the course of three days last summer, the dilettante of vert mastered three new tricks: frontside fakie to fakie 540, backside fakie to fakie 540, and fakie frontside 360 heel flip. The mastery of these three moves in such a short time span qualifies as an epic achievement. This clearly was not the funloving, where's-Sasha-Cohen Flying Tomato from Torino. This was someone else.

"When there was a little bit of trouble, my instinct was, Fine, I'm going all or nothing," White says. "When I saw attitude from other skaters, I was like, The heck with you. And I got so much better in three days, I couldn't believe it."

Fear just isn't part of his makeup. White's childhood backyard in Del Mar reflected the family mind-set. There was a skateboard miniramp and a trampoline, and Jesse used to jump off the back of the ramp, about 10 feet in the air, and land on the trampoline. Shaun would make the same jump, bounce, then do a backflip before landing. "I'd say, 'You're 10. Do not do that,' " Jesse says.

Shaun says, "I started at 6, so I've been in the air a long time. It doesn't bother me." And his determination to learn skills that could separate him from the group—he wants to be the first to pull a 1080, which he's never landed despite repeated tries at last summer's X Games—blocks any hesitation that might otherwise come with maturity. "When I'm learning something, I don't care if I slam," he says. "I always ask myself, How hard can I really fall?"

In the winter before Torino, White struggled. It was relative, of course, but a fourth-place finish in snowboard superpipe at 2005 Winter X was disappointing for him. While the brothers were in New Zealand, Jesse would chide Shaun: "You know, you had a down year last year." This would set Shaun off, which was exactly the point. "Okay, I hate you," he'd tell his brother. "Let's go to the pipe." Then Shaun would work until he could prove Jesse wrong.

White never set out to beat the skaters at their own game—in fact, he went out of his way to be deferential—but you might say they drove him to it. His attitude, one that's popular among stars of nontraditional sports, is to do his best and root for the rest. He competes against himself, and he says that's the only way to test limits. "I've always thought that if I tried to beat someone, then I could only get as good as they are," White says. "If I try to be as good as I can be, there's no telling where that might lead."

But he knew he was different, and he knew the skaters were watching him closely as he garnered all the interviews and attention. White's deference softened them some, but it wasn't a calculated move. It's a pattern with him; he just seems to know how to act.

And what to say. He claims the atmosphere around the ramp has improved in the past year, though he adds, "They're definitely not as nice as snowboarders." Then, for the first time, his face flashes a look. The polished 19-year-old who is amused by his fame is gone, and in his place is the cutthroat competitor. "It's getting better because they know I'm not going anywhere."

That settles it. Forget the idea that he might set aside the skateboard and live happily ever after as a snowboarder. He won't get scared out of the sport.

Predictably, other skaters say all the right things about White. "I don't see how anyone could see how having Shaun in the sport is a bad thing," says Anthony Furlong, a 27-year-old Tampa pro. "He comes off very humble. He's trying to earn our respect. You can't help but accept him when he's kicking your ass."

Adds Jean Postec, a 21-year-old French skater, "He brings so much more attention to the sport. That helps everyone."

White's determination, it should be noted, extends beyond sports. He set out to finish high school simply because it was the thing to do. As one of the richest nonheir teenagers in the world (his earnings could top $5 million per year, mostly from sponsors such as Burton, Oakley, Target, Mountain Dew, PlayStation and Birdhouse), he didn't need the diploma. Still, after four years of fitful year-round study, he earned one from Carlsbad High School.

"I thought there'd be all these other kids saying, 'Look at Shaun, he didn't go to high school,' " he says. "I didn't want that, and I didn't want to see people on a plane and have to tell them I dropped out. That's not cool no matter what. But there were times when I didn't want to do it. I'm in a hotel room in Japan with all these flashing lights outside, and I'm supposed to close the curtains and study algebra?"

He decided he wanted to learn to play the guitar, so he taught himself. As he sat in the makeup chair before a photo shoot in Los Angeles, he taught his publicist, Nancy Carlson, to play a Led Zeppelin riff. The performance was impressive. "When he sets his mind to something, it gets done," Carlson says.

Set aside the Cruise-and-Couric, athlete-rock star fame for a moment. White has lived a lot more than the average 19-year-old. Once, when he was 16 and traveling alone, he found himself stuck for a night at Chicago's O'Hare airport. He walked around for an hour or two before trying, and failing, to get some sleep at one of the gates. He eventually walked to an airport hotel and sweet-talked the girl at the desk into booking him a room. So he can think on his feet and handle himself in a crowd and wow a sponsor in a face-to-face. Yet it's easy for White to promote the funny, slightly goofy side of his persona. He gets a lot of questions along the lines of "Who do you identify with, the coyote or the roadrunner?" It works well, since he seems to make a conscious effort to keep his competitive side out of view. Sitting for an interview in Louisville, he deflects most of the serious questions with a practiced nonchalance. When the topic turns to his chances in the Dew Tour (he ended up falling and failing to qualify for the finals in Louisville), he embarks on a wild tangent about, of all things, capes.

"I think it's going to really impress the judges," he says. "Doing a 540 with a cape. It's going to be a doozy."

Later, when asked about new tricks, he trots out another cape reference, then looks around and asks, "Am I going too far with the cape thing?" They laugh and tell him no, everything's fine, keep doing what you're doing. White laughs too, and flicks his hair, happy to keep his inner SOB hidden.