'Flying Tomato’ hard to miss at Winter X Games

Story by Brian Gomez
The Gazette
January 29, 2011
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ASPEN, Colo. — Shaun White soared in and out of a 22-foot halfpipe, performing every trick in the book at top amplitude. Another jaw-dropping practice session he made look routine.

"Who is that chick?" he heard someone ask during his workout with women’s snowboarders.

When White disclosed the case of mistaken identity, Gretchen Bleiler didn’t hesitate for a joke at his expense. "Her hair is so flowing!" she exclaimed. "Her pants are so tight!"

The "Flying Tomato" isn’t hard to miss at the Winter X Games, which continued Friday and run through Sunday on Buttermilk Mountain, where White remains a larger-than-life figure, indisputably the crown jewel of an action-sports empire he has helped construct.

His red locks are brighter than ever, drooping from the back of his polished helmet, now onto an all-black outfit from head to toe, a sharp contrast from the red, white and blue he donned at the 2010 Vancouver Games in defending his Olympic title in the halfpipe. And off the hill, black also is his thing, evidenced by his form-fitting jeans and leather shoes.

Asked by a reporter earlier this week if he has appeared on any worst-dressed lists, White said, "I don’t know what she’s talking about. These shoes are made for walking."

A 15-time Winter X medalist with a mind-numbing move — the double McTwist 1,260 — few in the world are capable of executing, White, 24, of Carlsbad, Calif., ranked second on a list of the 100 most marketable American athletes released Thursday by Bloomberg, behind only Peyton Manning and ahead of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady.

Last year, Forbes magazine estimated White’s annual income at $9 million, generated via a herd of corporate sponsors that includes Burton Snowboards, Hewlett-Packard, Oakley, Red Bull and Target, as well as snowboarding and skateboarding video games bearing his name. Call him the anchor of a snowboarding industry valued at almost $1 billion a year.

Not much about White has changed as he aims for his fourth straight victory in Sunday’s superpipe finals at Winter X — he won the elimination round Thursday with back-to-back double cork 1,080s, then he failed to qualify Friday for the slopestyle finals, placing 13th in the freestyle event that combines height and technique on a course full of obstacles.

White still conducts showings for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He still plays the guitar, hooked since he won one as a teenager in Aspen. He still goes pretty much wherever he wants on Buttermilk, noting he can decipher "where to get my parking pass. I know that when I don’t have my parking pass, I have to like take a photo with the parking guy."

Last month, White, in partnership with Oakley, hosted a snowboarding contest in China. This month, he attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Any day, video should hit the Internet of White demolishing orange cones in a Viper drift machine — the perks of a sponsorship he announced Wednesday with tire manufacturer BFGoodrich.

"They quickly found out that I’m not the most savvy driver," said White, who had never operated a stick shift. "I’m pretty sure, by the end of it, I blew out the transmission."

The goal for White since he has recovered from a bone chip in his left ankle? Maintain a focus on progression. Avoid the "pretty heavy" practice spill that nearly knocked him out of Winter X last year. Rediscover a very familiar spot — on the top perch of the podium.

"This isn’t my first time," White said. "I like to hold inside that I know what to expect. There are a lot of new faces, but I’ve been around a bit. I know what I’m doing."

Brian Gomez

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