Shaun White Says He's 'Been Able to Lean on Michael Phelps' for Support: 'He's Been Through It All'

The three-time, Olympic-snowboarding gold medalist and entrepreneur talks about the physical and mental preparation he's doing before the Beijing Games

David Ramos/Getty.

Shaun White is ready to bring the heat to the Winter Olympic Games once again.

Beijing will be, if all goes to plan, the half-pipe snowboarder and three-time Olympic gold medalist's fifth Olympic Games.

Recognized as a legend in the sport, the fiery, red-haired competitor (famously known as the "Flying Tomato") snagged his first gold medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, and his second when he dominated the Vancouver half-pipe in 2010. He scored his third gold in PyeongChang at the 2018 Games, which also marked a major milestone: it was America's 100th Winter Olympics gold medal.

While it's clear the half-pipe rider is no stranger to the Olympic scene, White admitted that he, among other athletes, has been faced with new challenges and added obstacles in preparation for next year's Games.

"It's really challenging just due to COVID," White tells PEOPLE while talking about his KRAVE partnership. "Things have been very turbulent in the practice space, so that was probably the biggest challenge and hurdle. We're all doing our best."

Olympics Snowboard Men, Pyeongchang, South Korea - 14 Feb 2018
Gregory Bull/AP/Shutterstock

Tokyo 2020 was met with triumph as the International Olympic Committee was able to successfully carry out the global competition amid pandemic — a feat that offers a sense of hope for winter athletes looking for their turn to safely compete come February.

"It's so great they did the Summer Olympics because they made it happen. It's exciting that it's going to happen at all," says White, who's heading into the Games with a renewed sense of appreciation.

White, who's been training alongside the rest of the U.S. Snowboarding team in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, revealed in an interview with Forbes that the level of competition has already changed since "two riders have done triples in the halfpipe," a trick that he hasn't revisited since his major "crash" in 2013.

The flipping fiend, who hit back-to-back 1440s (four aerial spins) at the Pyeongchang Games and landed a double cork 1440 (four spins plus two off-axis rotations) at the U.S. Grand Prix in March, broke down how he trains for such dangerous tricks, while simultaneously knowing that enormous risk is involved.

"At some point there's a leap of faith, you just kind of have to say, 'Okay, today's the day I'm doing this trick,' " White says. "You gotta face that fear and get over it." Fortunately, the athlete isn't alone when attempting these new moves, as he relies on the support of those around him for a layer of confidence.

"Usually you have people around you, a coach or a friend or somebody that can help you in that situation where they'll motivate you or say something encouraging." He adds, "Or you just make a pact with yourself and you go. That's the heavy part."

They say "practice makes perfect" for a reason. White, who went pro at age 13, confirms that learning new tricks and mastering maneuvers doesn't happen overnight.

"Usually tricks are based off of other tricks, so I'm not going to show up and do three flips," White explains.

Shaun White of the United States competes during the Snowboard Men's Halfpipe Qualification on day four of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

If the 35-year-old qualifies for the Beijing Games, he'll become the oldest U.S. half-pipe rider in Olympic history. While some may view that as a negative, the four-time Olympic athlete uses it to his advantage.

"I will say that having been to the Olympics so many times, I know what to expect. Yeah, there's age, but that comes with experience, so I don't think there's much that can compete with that," says the seasoned veteran. "Being younger has its advantages, but there's something to be said about experience."

Preparing for the Games takes just as much mental preparation as it does physical. The 2021 Tokyo Olympics changed the conversation about athletes' mental health, following Simone Biles' decision to withdraw from the competition. White has experience dealing with the stresses surrounding such a high-pressure event.

"For years, I just didn't talk about it. You're taught to just get through it, especially growing up as a boy ... nobody really talked about feeling the pressure, being like, 'Hey I need help' or 'I'm not okay with this,'" he admits. "Especially with sports, you would never want to show weakness, which nowadays, it takes so much courage to actually talk about it and be vulnerable in those things. I never really thought of it that way."

Hearing other athletes speak up about mental wellness and vocalize their feelings and concerns was something White found comforting and even influenced him to do the same. "Having other athletes talk about it was really inspiring to me, so then I started talking about it, because it affects us all, even people outside of athletics," he shares. "Nowadays, I just talk about it. I just bring it up. I don't pretend it's not happening, or like I don't feel overwhelmed at times, or feel the pressure. I've always used it as a motivator."

In addition to confiding in family, his partner Nina Dobrev, and coaches, White has found a sense of community within other competitors with similar mindsets.

"Family's always been there, so that's just the foundation of support that I've always had, which is so amazing. Then, coaches, over the years, and other athletes more recently," says Shaun. "I've been able to lean on Michael Phelps here and there. He's a really awesome guy and a great person, because he's been through it all."

Simon Bruty /Sports Illustrated/Getty; Marianna Massey/Getty

In addition to holding a career as a professional athlete, White is an entrepreneur as well — having partnered with KRAVE Jerky, for whom he serves as their global ambassador, investor, and advisor. The product is a mix between "better for you and better tasting," an important nutritional balance for the Olympic athlete.

"I love beef jerky. I'm actually really into the product. I remember every road trip I was ever on as a kid, we had beef jerky, and there's only so many snacks you can keep in your pocket, on the mountain, that doesn't just turn into crumbs by the end of the day."

Shaun White KRAVE
courtesy Krave

Shaun's new flavor, KRAVE Gold Label Spicy Sesame Ginger Beef Jerky, launches today and pays homage to his Olympic achievements. The name of the product is also a nod to his signature red locks — but he confirms that "Spicy Ginger" was not a nickname growing up.

"I wish. Oh my goodness. That would've been amazing on the magazines. No, it wasn't a nickname, but 'ginger' was obviously inspired by the hair; and then 'spicy,' I love spicy food; and 'sesame,' that was all because I love Asian food."

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