Shaun White's Physical Therapist Says Secret to His Success Is More than Just Pushing It in the Gym

Dr. Esther Lee tells PEOPLE about how she has helped snowboarder Shaun White in Beijing, and how he's helped her through a stage IV cancer diagnosis

Shaun White gets fitted in Nike ahead of Beijing 2022 on January 28, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Shaun White. Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty

Shaun White is feeling good.

Despite a nail-biting crash during his qualifying run for the men's halfpipe event at the 2022 Winter Games, the three-time Olympic gold medalist pulled himself up by his snow-bootstraps to make it to the finals on Thursday night (Eastern).

This will be the last competition of White's long career — he announced that he's retiring after the Beijing Olympic Games. At 35, the snowboarding legend is old for the teen-dominated extreme sport. To hold on to his title as one of the best athletes the sport has ever seen, White relies on his friend and physiotherapist, Dr. Esther Lee, who has been on her own daunting journey to these Games.

"This might be the best he's felt in years," Lee tells PEOPLE from Beijing, where she's supporting White in his final outing. "He's like, 'I feel good … should I do more?' "

She adds, "It's just exciting that he can be facing retirement and still be feeling awesome."

Lee has worked with White for the past seven years and lived with him during his months of preparation for the 2022 Winter Games. All that one-on-one time has fostered a special bond between the snowboarder and the physio. They hug before he shreds each competition. She sends him encouraging messages as he rests between runs. And when White slides to the bottom of the hill, she's there for an embrace and the happy tears that tend to follow.

"I think what sets true champions apart. The mentality," she says of White's celebratory cry. Lee understands the mental strength it takes to be a champion — she was the personal physical therapist to tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams for several years and traveled with them full-time.

Lee stresses the importance of rest and recovery, both mentally and physically, for every athlete she works with, but especially with White. His recovery begins as soon as he steps off the mountain and includes nightly ice baths and plenty of rest.

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"We did a long treatment yesterday after he rode," Lee shares after his qualifying run, "and my approach is just to go through the whole body and make sure that there's not too much tension building up because when they're out there competing, there's such a high demand on your body. And my goal is to prevent any injuries from happening. And some things you can't prevent."

She explains that most people believe being a healthy athlete is just "working out and being strong and pushing yourself and sweating and but that is always half the battle."

"The other half is recovery and care and maintenance for your body," says Lee. "And I think that's still something people don't fully understand, and that's where the role of a physical therapist is really key to your overall health."

The dedicated physical and emotional care that Lee extends to White is gifted right back to her by her Olympian pal — Lee was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in July 2020, a tragic shock for the athletic doctor and those close to her.

A 14-centimeter neuroendocrine tumor was found on Lee's pancreas, the discovery following some fatigue and upending her world. She's since been "through the wringer," undergoing surgeries and treatment (which, she says, she's currently on an "intermission" from, just in time to accompany White).

Right after her diagnosis, Lee says, the support came rolling in. She explains, "The biggest thing that really stuck out is the amount of love and support I got immediately from family and friends, and every single one of my clients."

In October, former client Serena posted an emotional video, tearfully imploring fans to donate to Esther's fundraiser for the Los Angeles Cancer Challenge 5K. And White, too, has been supportive: "he's been there for me to listen, and to really encourage me and to cry with me about the heaviness."

Lee occasionally needs wheelchair assistance at airports while on the road to snowboarding competitions and says that White will often carry her luggage or slow down to walk beside her so they can continue their "heart to heart conversations about life."

"We've both just been crybabies," Lee says, "but such happy tears and just full of just gratitude for where we're both at, and the opportunity for us to share this together."

The transition from a provider to someone who needs to be provided for sometimes, Lee admits is challenging. Still, she sees the highlights as she faces down more treatment: "I mean, it's such a blessing to learn that side of life."

And as for what's next for White, Lee sees the future as wide open. Despite White's senior status in the snowboarding world, she notes that "35 is still very young."

"He's super excited and I'm super excited for him," Lee says. "And honestly, who knows what it's gonna be like, after — we've never been in this situation before, where he's done. I think it's definitely overwhelming with emotions. Just happiness, sadness, excitement, full of just being so proud of what he's done in his career and what he's done for his fellow athletes."

To learn more about Team USA, visit Watch the Winter Olympics, now, and the Paralympics, beginning March 4, on NBC.

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