It came as no surprise that even when two-time gold medalist Shaun White’s snowboard hit the top of a halfpipe while he was doing a double cork 1440 on the slopes in New Zealand in October, leaving him injured and needing 62 stitches, he was still able to get up, hold his face and ride down the rest of the half pipe.
Despite the recovery time — both physically and mentally — he’s been able put that injury in the past and look ahead to the PyeongChang Games, where he makes his 2018 debut Tuesday morning in South Korea (Monday evening stateside) in the halfpipe semi-finals.
“Honestly, I’m so excited,” he told PEOPLE prior to arriving in Pyeongchang. “I’ve been pretty frustrated, obviously, after the last Olympics with my performance and I didn’t how the conditions were in the halfpipe. All of these weird things leading up to that event that just made it an unsuccessful showing for me.”
He still looks back at his time at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi when he crashed on his final run, as well as what he learned from it.
“It was so amazing to come home and realize that you can’t take away from the two medals that I’ve won before and all of the things that I’ve done in my career,” he recalls. “That was a very amazing feeling to get home and people are like, ‘No, you’re still the man. This happens.’ It had been so long — honestly so long — since I had lost that I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I lose sometimes. I can go back at it.’ That’s at exactly what I did.”
After years of spending time getting his priorities straight, he says, “I’m honestly stronger than I’ve been before. At least [I’m] more determined and focused.”
“I look at the whole picture. Am I happy when I go ride? Am I excited to be there? Is the team around me, my people … you know I’ve changed a lot of things,” he says. “[I have] a new agency I’m working with, a new business manager, new coach, new physical therapist, trainer, all of these different things in my life that are kind of helping me to get the job done. It’s definitely working.”
Case in point, White looked to be relaxed and in the zone when he shared a photo of himself enjoying a “day off” in Pyeongchang a day before his 2018 Olympic debut.
Speaking to PEOPLE a few days before he competed in Korea, he said: “Look, this is my fourth Olympics, you know, what a great position to be in — and I’m just so thankful to be going to the Olympics again, to be an Olympian. It’s great, really great.”
Long the most famous snowboarder in the country, and at times the world, White’s decades-long career has seen its share of ups and downs, both personal and professional, from his gold medals and a professional skateboarding and music career to a 2012 arrest on suspected public intoxication and vandalism — charges which were later dropped.
In 2016, he was sued by the former drummer in his band, who accused him of breach of contract and sexual harassment. He called the suit “bogus,” and it was settled in 2017.
While White might feel physically ready to compete, it’s his mental mindset that’s always been most challenging for the athlete who holds the record for winning the most X-Games gold medals.
“I’ve been doing this sport for so long,” he says. “Just to stay focused and even have something like this happen to me and able to be motivated and to stay focused at the task at hand is a big sign that I’m doing the right things in my life.”
“We’ve talked about this potentially being my last but I don’t know, I mean we talked about that at the last Olympics, so it’s like time flies by,” he told PEOPLE in Korea. “And as long as I’m motivated and feeling good about things, I can continue on in the sport. It’s all kind of like how you pace yourself.”
When he’s not on the slopes, White realizes what’s more special than taking home a medal — and recently told PEOPLE he’s “very excited” to settle in to domestic life with girlfriend Sarah Barthel, 34, who is one half of the electro-rock band Phantogram.
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Now older and wiser, he says he’s also come to appreciate the larger meaning of the Olympics, and how special it is to be a part of it.
“All of these different things and cultures come together and we compete,” he says. “It’s a really beautiful thing. That’s why they do that big march in the opening ceremony parade. Everybody gets out there. You bring your flag and you be a part of something bigger. It’s a joyous thing. I didn’t realize that until I was older that being a part of the Olympics is you’re an Olympian. That’s a feat on its own. You join this history of being an Olympian.”
At a news conference after arriving in Korea before competing, White teased that he felt he had not yet put out his best run down the snow. The hope, he said, is to do that at these Games.
“I’ve had it in my mind of what it would [look] like, and I can visually see myself going through the run,” he told PEOPLE. “And seeing all the people that I know are coming out here at the bottom, I can just see it. And it’s just all about getting there and kind of matching that vision with reality, because that’s what’s happened before in the past Olympics. But it would mean the world to me, honestly.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.