Olympic snowboarder Shaun White on being vulnerable with mental health: ‘It’s not a weakness’

Shaun White has been an Olympian for almost half his life.

The snowboarder was just 19 years old when he competed in his first Winter Olympics in 2006. Now the 35-year-old is set for his fifth and final appearance in the men’s half pipe competition in Beijing on Thursday. And recently, he told CNBC Make It that in the last 16 years, the experience of being an elite athlete has changed dramatically, because mental health is no longer taboo.

“I talk about it now,” White said, during a November interview about his investment in Krave beef jerky. “It’s not something I really brought up a lot when I was younger, because I thought he was the only one going through it or having these thoughts.”

A three-time Olympic gold medalist, White has undoubtedly experienced all the ups and downs associated with being a professional athlete. he he has fought multiple injuries, including a brutal accident in 2018 where hit his head against the top of a supertube, earning him 62 points to the face. also faced accusations of sexual harassment in 2016, which were settled out of court a year later for an undisclosed sum.

Throughout it all, he dealt with the pressure of constantly winning, especially after scoring his first Olympic gold medal as a teenager. When he was younger, White said, he thought expressing any mental health issues would be seen as “weakness,” or that he wasn’t a fierce enough competitor.

Especially in professional sports, he said, people are often taught to “clench their teeth” and “endure” their challenges, because it will all be worth it in the end. But that mindset changed for White when he heard swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history with 28 medals, speak openly about his own mental health struggles in an event

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“That really blew me away,” White said.

Although Phelps competed in a different sport, White said, the experience of processing large amounts of pressure was immediate. Since then, he added, it has been much easier for him to openly discuss his own struggles with others.

“It takes a lot of courage to talk about it. It’s not a weakness,” White said. Rather, he postulated vulnerability as a strength, valuing statements such as “I’m overwhelmed right now. I feel like this and things are getting complicated. I’m not doing it right.”

White said he did just that during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, when he retired from the hillside event because he didn’t feel physically compete safely. He said the backlash was difficult to deal with, but his own health took priority.

“I was worried about my well-being,” he said. “I don’t know what would have happened if he had succumbed to the pressure.”

White did not win the medal in Sochi, but won gold four years later in the half pipe competition at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. He said he hopes more athletes will speak out on the subject of mental health in the future.

“The more people talk about this, the more understanding and growth that can come from it,” he said.

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