Friday, Feb. 11th:
🙇 I had a moment today.
16 years ago when I covered my first Olympics in Torino, Italy, I interviewed a San Diego hometown snowboarder who captured gold. He had flowing red hair and radiated teenage wonder. Shaun White let me hold his medal and as I grasped it I exaggerated the weight with a drop of my hands. He said “I know … it’s heavy right?!?!”
I left to cover those Olympics with a couple of toddlers at home. Today one of them is in college, the other is driving and there’s even a third who is now in the mix and navigating middle school. Life has sure changed a lot since Shaun White burst onto the Olympic scene and I’m not sure how I feel about him leaving it.
The train from Beijing to the mountains left early. It was packed mainly with foreign journalists excited about the showdown on the halfpipe. Bay Area photojournalist Robbie Beasom joined me for the trip, which was a huge comfort knowing I wouldn’t have to tackle this challenge alone. We’d secured a position in the “mixed zone” and arrived at the Genting Snow Park just as the competition started in search of the person who had the list of names and passes. We walked through a maze of chain link fences, risers and tents until we found the person we needed.
The halfpipe mixed zone sits at the bottom of the giant ice tube with a great view of the action. We were packed in fairly snug with dozens of TV cameras lined up on either side. Rows of print and radio reporters stood behind us in their own specific areas, with Olympic team members behind them and who knows who behind them. Everyone stands as if we’re in the “pit” at a sold out concert. The satisfaction you feel in finding your position is also similar to what it’s like when you finally find your seats at a sold out show or big game. It was a chilly day in the high 20’s, but bright and sunny. I never expected to get sunburned at the Winter Olympics, but it happened. I’m a little concerned that I now have “mask burn” too, which won’t be a great look on TV.
We all know what happened with Shaun White. He and the 11 other riders had three runs to get their best score. In the end he finished 4th … no storybook finish for his final Olympics. We waited about 45 minutes for White to make his way down the line of line of reporters wanting an interview. An Olympic Broadcasting Services handler ushered him along gently tapping the reporter on the hand after a couple of questions with a non-verbal cue to wrap it up. Most don’t and some really push it until it gets awkward. I only needed to ask him a couple of questions to know I’d heard what I needed and I didn’t press my luck when I got the tap on the arm because I really wanted a quick photo. He was very gracious with every reporter and his answers fluctuated between laughter and tears. It wasn’t a show. He was struggling in real time to process a new reality.
I’ve talked with White after four of his five Olympics, but he doesn’t know my name or recognize me or have any real affinity towards me as the local reporter from his hometown. I don’t say this thinking he should, he’s on another level than most Olympians. Who knows how many interviews he has done over the years … after all the guy turned professional at age 7 when he got his first snowboard!
Today Shaun White had a moment. I was glad to see it in person and turn around a quick report for the late news in San Diego. But, it wasn’t until the train ride home when it really hit me. I thought about our first games in Torino, his triumph in Vancouver, the disappointment of Sochi and the vindication of Pyeongchang.
It was undoubtedly Shaun White’s day in Beijing, but I’m thankful he shared it ... because while watching his Olympic career come full circle, I quietly had a moment too.
NBC 7's Steven Luke is in Beijing, China to bring us the latest updates from the 2022 Winter Olympics. Click here to follow his journey, day-by-day