Austin Hargrave

Whether on snow or lumber, champion boarder Shaun White simply doesn’t believe in standing still.

Shaun White, the most famous snowboarder in the world, was supposed to be a surfer. That’s why he’s named Shaun, after Shaun Tomson, the South African free-rider who would become legendary for taming the notorious waves off Oahu’s North Shore in the mid-1970s. White’s father Roger rode the longboards, and like all fathers eager to pass on their obsessions to their sons, he thought surely little Shaun — born in the Pacific Ocean mist in Southern California — would embrace the sport as well. He had seen glimpses of daredevilry in his boy, the sure signs of the fearlessness necessary to ride big waves. And so, when Shaun was 6, maybe 7 — Shaun doesn’t recall the exact age, only The Incident — Roger took his son to a surf shop and said: Today’s the day. Pick one.

The 2012 Winter X Games 16 take place Jan. 26–29 in Aspen, Colo., and air on ESPN. At press time, nearly 100 athletes from around the world were expected to compete, with participants being added daily.

“Then he took me out and set me out on this giant wave that I wasn’t ready for,” White recalls some 18 years later, over a breakfast of huevos rancheros at the Chateau Marmont, looking more rock star than athlete — his jeans and button-down varying shades of black, his famous crimson mane styled in early classic rock. We will spend a long morning trying to pin down the precise moment when he knew he’d never be scared of anything, when he crossed the line separating the timid from the obscenely brave. That long-ago morning, when a little boy was out in the Pacific Ocean with his dad, was not that moment.

“I go under and get swirled around. It’s cold and I’m in a spring suit and I’m getting swirled around and I come up for air and I don’t get it and get swirled more and finally come up and the board just smacks me in the face.” White recounts the moment in a blur, like he’s rushing to get through it so he can take a deep breath. “I’m bleeding, and I’m sitting there like, ‘I hate you. I’m never doing this again. This isn’t going down anymore.’ ”

Shaun told his father he no longer wanted the surfboard. It would be years before he stepped onto another wave.

Of course, had that been that, we wouldn’t be here today, washing back black beans and eggs with tea on Sunset Boulevard, talking about Olympic gold medals and the nearly two dozen X Games medals (for snowboarding and skateboarding) and the sponsorship deals and the clothing lines and the skateboard designs and the competitions fast approaching on a calendar with few blank days. To that, add the dozens upon dozens of other championships he’s won over the years. He’s been the fastest, highest or daringest something or other — on snow and cement — since he was way too short for the big rides.

That surfing thing was just a bump in the ocean on a path to glory and riches, the likes of which few ever experience — especially a mere 25 years into their existence. It wasn’t long after that day in the ocean that Shaun found his true calling: speeding down jagged mountain cliffs while strapped to a slab of fiberglass-laminated wood. And at the bottom of those mountain cliffs lay a pile of gold.