With the Winter Olympics set to open this week, I decided to post about one of my favorite Olympians – Shaun White. Most of us know him as a gold medalist in snowboarding and as a champion skateboarder. In 2003, he became the first athlete to win a medal in both the Summer and Winter X Games in two different sports.
But did you know that his dreams of being an athlete were almost derailed after a serious skateboarding accident when he was eleven years old? Or that he had two major heart surgeries before he was a year old?
Shaun who grew up in Carlsbad, California, was born with a heart defect that required those early surgeries. But he was never a frail kid. His family, including his parents and a brother and sister, enjoyed taking weekend trips to the mountains to ski.
Shaun learned to ski when he was four. By the time he turned six, he was swishing down slopes at a speed that worried his mother. She decided he should learn to snowboard. She thought that would slow him down, but Shaun was just as fast on a snowboard.
The family began making more trips to the mountains so Shaun could take part in snowboarding competitions. They traveled and slept in an old camper van with a heater that sometimes gave out in the middle of cold nights.
Shaun had a lot of energy and trips to the mountains were not always possible. So he learned to skateboard and soon began competing in that sport too. When Shaun was eleven, he collided with an older, much bigger boy during a skateboarding exhibition, and was knocked unconscious. He ended up with a fractured skull and broken bones, and told his mom he was done with skateboarding. She understood his fear, but she also knew how much he loved the sport. So she continued to take him to the YMCA for skateboarding lessons. Shaun was upset with her at the time, but later he was happy she made him stick with it.
Shaun turned pro as a snowboarder in 2000 when he was thirteen years old. Two years later, he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team. He missed the cut by 0.3 points, but he did not give up.
In 2006, Shaun tried again. That time he made the Olympic team and traveled to Torino, Italy where the games were held. Shaun got off to a shaky start after a bad landing in his qualifying run for the men’s halfpipe. But he came back and captured the gold. Four years later, he struck gold again at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.
Fans are amazed with Shaun’s daring twists and flips on a snowboard, but he is impressed with the bravery of kids who are fighting life threatening illnesses. In partnership with Target, one of his sponsors, he and his brother designed the “Shaun White Great Room.” That recreation room is in the Target House where families can stay while their kids are getting treatment at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Shaun hangs out with the kids as often as he can.
In writing biographies for children and young adults, I’m always looking for good role models. Unfortunately, when you’re writing about the current stars and athletes that kids want to read about, you take a chance. You never know when those celebrities will disappoint. I would have felt bad if I had written a biography about Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber. I know because I did write about Lance Armstrong. So as Shaun White takes the international stage again, I’m hoping he’ll make us proud at the Olympics and long after the games are done.