Shaun White has been an Olympian for nearly 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 halfpipe competition in Beijing on Thursday. And recently, he told CNBC Make It that over the past 16 years, the experience of being an elite athlete has noticeably changed — because mental health is no longer taboo.
"I talk about it now," White said, during a November interview about his investment in beef jerky brand Krave. "It's not something that I really brought up much when I was younger, because I thought I was the only one going through it, or having these thoughts."
White, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, has certainly experienced all the ups and downs associated with being professional athlete. He's battled multiple injuries, including a brutal crash in 2018 where he slammed his head against the top of a superpipe, leading to 62 stitches in his face. He also faced sexual harassment allegations in 2016, which were settled out of court a year later for an undisclosed sum.
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Throughout it all, he dealt with pressure to constantly win — especially after securing his first Olympic gold medal as a teenager. When he was younger, White said, he thought that voicing any mental health struggles 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 "grit your teeth" and "bear through" their challenges, because it'll all be worth it in the end. But that mentality 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 at an event.
"That really blew me away," White said.
Even though Phelps competed in a different sport, White said, the experience of processing huge amounts of pressure was instantly relatable. Since then, he added, it's been much easier for him to openly discuss his own struggles with others.
"It takes so much courage to actually talk about it. It's not a weakness," White said. Rather, he posited vulnerability as a strength, valuing statements like, "I'm overwhelmed right now. I'm feeling this way and things are spiraling. I'm not doing good."
White said he did just that during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, when he pulled out of the slopestyle event because he didn't feel physically safe competing. He said the backlash was difficult to deal with, but his own health took precedence.
"I was concerned for my wellbeing," he said. "I don't know what would have happened if I succumbed to the pressure."
White didn't medal in Sochi, but took gold four years later in the halfpipe competition at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. He said he hopes more athletes talk about the topic of mental health going forward.
"The more people talk about it, the more understanding and growth can come from it," he said.
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