White during the 2010 Winter Olympics men's snowboard half-pipe qualifying heat at Cypress Mountain in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Robert Beck/Sports illustrated/Getty Images
The Whites thought strapping Shaun to a snowboard would somehow make him slower; easier to keep up with. Wrong. He got faster. He went farther, higher. “My brother started snowboarding, and I had to do what he was doing,” White says. “I was such a horrible child.” He laughs. “Just that problem child.” A wide smile spreads across his narrow, angular face.

Snowboard manufacturer Burton got word of a young boy who lived in the thin, frigid air, this yea-high daredevil. It offered to sponsor him. Worst-case scenario, they gave away their product to a novelty who could garner their product some much-needed attention. Best-case? They hitched their snowboard to a star.

“It definitely starts there,” White says. He means: You don’t have to be older than 7 to realize it’s pretty cool when people give you stuff for free just for doing what you love. Only later did they pay him for it too — like, for putting his face on a pack of gum.

The Burton deal, he says, provided “that first spark, that glimmer of hope that maybe this isn’t me being nuts or going to end with me in the hospital. I love doing this sport. It began with people thinking I showed potential, with my parents supporting me. Who cared what all these other people thought? I thought then: ‘I’m going to go and do my thing.’ ”

Watch out, Superman you're not the only one who can fly.
Gabriel L'Heureux
Every now and then, one of White’s competitors will ask him for a tip. Or they’ll ask him what he thinks they should do or why he thinks they didn’t land a particular attempt. Like the magician for whom the trick is the trade, White doesn’t reveal too much. Maybe a few thoughts, some advice, random words of encouragement. But they should know better, he figures. Besides, he doesn’t have much interest in breaking down the geometry of his art. Many have attempted to reduce something as mind-boggling as his mythic Double McTwist 1260 move to discussions of physics illustrated with equations and diagrams. There was once a TV show dedicated to that very thing.

But forget all that. According to White, it just happens. The trick takes shape in the head and comes out of the body when it’s ready. How Shaun White does what he does is easy to explain. It’s all about adrenaline and focus. Also: the fear of failure.

“I can’t do certain tricks unless it’s in a contest, because that pressure — you need it,” he says. “You get into that zone and I’m like, ‘OK, I have to land. It’s not an option.’ Tricks seem to happen easier when you’re at events. You need that contest mode to see the crowd, the clock’s ticking — all these things that make you push harder.”