The Olympics remain the best reality show on the Earth. Last
night’s utterly captivating performance by Shaun White checked all the boxes:
dramatic, athletically mind-boggling, and most of all, inspirational.
Most of us will never get to see an Olympics in person – and it really doesn’t matter. Indeed, it’s easy to argue that the Games are better on television, because one thing NBC does well is present the individual athlete’s stories that spectators at the events themselves might only be dimly aware of.
Like most of you, I’ve watched Shaun White perform for years, stemming back to his original “Flying Tomato” days. His career path as he’s matured reminds me a great deal of the tennis player Andre Agassi, losing hair and gaining perspective, becoming a veteran ambassador of his sport.
What last night’s performance really hammered home, however, was how even the greatest athletes have to summon tremendous resilience and overcome challenging adversity to succeed – in an event that takes about 60 seconds, which they have four years to prepare for.
Few of us follow snowboarding seriously, so if you’re like me you had no idea White had suffered a horrible crash training in New Zealand in October, landing on his head on the edge of the half-pipe. He had to be taken by helicopter to a hospital, with 62 stitches needed to patch the gash in his forehead. Shaun White is the rare Winter Olympic athlete who is a walking conglomerate – he didn’t need another gold medal financially. He wanted it emotionally, so he preserved and continued his quest.
In PyeonChang last night, White nailed his first round run, and seemed to be locked into gold medal position. Japan’s dynamic young Ayumu Hirano then stunned White (and American viewers) with a fantastic second run to capture the lead.
Shaun White response was remarkable. He put together a final run that not only answered Hirano’s challenge, but was shocking in its logic. White’s 97.75 score was earned primarily on the strength of back-to-back 1440’s – a combination that he admitted to have NEVER successfully connected until THAT MORNING! A 31-year old veteran, who’d had years to prepare, rewriting the script and embracing significant risk at the last moment. Wow!
As someone who likes to think of himself as a modest athlete, with two serious injuries on my resume, I really learned something from Shaun White last night. Training and preparation, in sports as in life, are essential, but at certain essential moments, you’ve got to go with your gut feelings to really succeed. White’s gold medal run can be attributed to embracing a cliché that sounds great in theory, but is a struggle to put into practice: “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
My daughter, who is a real athlete, just finished a sports-psychology book called “Elite Minds” by Stan Beecham. She shared a couple of quotes from the book that further illustrate what Shaun White took to heart last night: “goals that are not frightening are not worth having,” and “playing scared keeps you close to the porch, and no one ever got lost or broke a world record in their own backyard.”
Let’s celebrate Shaun White’s athletic feats, but moreover his mental strength to seize the moment in a most daunting situation, with millions worldwide watching. Maybe we all can learn something from a wizened snowboarder from California.