JJ Thomas and Shaun White have some history. Back in 2002, Thomas edged out the 15-year-old White for the fourth and final spot on Team USA for the Salt Lake City Winter Games and went on to win Olympic halfpipe bronze. That historic American podium sweep proved the authenticity of the sport to the general public.
Fast forward through more X Games and Dew Tour medals for Thomas and White’s meteoric rise, legendary career and disappointing fourth place finish at the 2014 Turin Olympics, and things came full circle when Thomas became White’s coach in 2016. Thomas was there when White crashed horrifically during a training run five months before the 2018 Olympics, which required 62 stitches in his face. And Thomas was there as White came back afterward to make the US team and put down an epic final run for Olympic halfpipe gold.
Now Thomas is coming to Colorado Springs May 12 for TEDx Frontiers to speak about his journey with White. The energy Thomas put into supporting and coaching White continued to resonate in his voice when we spoke with Thomas from his home in California about the arc of his own career, his experience with White and his upcoming talk.
Springs: Give us a brief sketch of your own highly successful snowboarding career?
JJ Thomas: I tore my ACL at the US Snowboard Open in 2002. After that I recommitted myself to the halfpipe in 2007 to make a push for the 2010 games. 2009 through 2011 were my best years. I tied for the fourth spot for the Olympic halfpipe team for Vancouver, and even though I didn’t get to the spot because they chose someone else … I was still so satisfied with my efforts that it really put me into a good space to retire.
2010-2011 were my favorite seasons because it meant so much more to be taking names at the end of my career versus [at] the beginning! [Thomas won Dew Cup Overall in 2010 and Dew Tour Silver in 2011.]
Did you realize how big that moment was when you, Ross Powers and Danny Kass swept the podium for the USA in the 2002 Winter Olympics?
Not really. It got bigger with time, but it was special—a high for me.
When did you start coaching Shaun White?
I started coaching Shaun in 2016. I felt the transition from being an athlete to a coach—all of a sudden you become their fan.
You beat him out for the 2002 Olympic team, right?
[It’s] a tightknit group, and I competed against Shaun competitively when I was young. When I was older, Shaun was just a league of himself. I tried getting on a podium with him, and I did — it was awesome.
Describe the experience of Shaun’s accident? You were there?
Yeah, I was there! That’s the downside of the sport. Especially with the progression he was showing. We went from having the best day of training we ever had to our worst day. The timing was so poor; it was just five months before the Olympics.
What was the journey back to health like?
Six weeks later we were in Austria, training again. I was nervous; I wasn’t sure if it was safe. I kept telling Shaun he should be done, but he kept saying, ‘Nope.’ We ended up having an insanely fun trip to Austria. It let him loosen up a little and got him back on track.
What were some coaching tips or guidance you provided to help Shaun come back after that?
Lead by example. At the end of the day, if you want them to eat healthy, then you go home and you cook that food. If you want them to act a certain way, then act that way.
Seven weeks after the crash, Shaun’s confidence was shattered for qualifiers, and I thought it was the end of his snowboarding. [Coaching] is not something you do with friends; [it’s] more of a coaching-student relationship. [Students] all respond differently, and at this point I knew how Shaun worked, and we really got in and did some dirty work.
What was the emotion for you watching Shaun’s dramatic Olympic gold medal win?
When he won, it was one of the craziest moments of my life. No one knew what he went through except him, his family and his team, including me. It was the coolest feeling of my life. It trumped anything I’ve experienced and was more rewarding than anything I’ve done personally.
Shaun and I still hang out. He came over last weekend. He still says, ‘Man, can you believe we did it?’ and I always say, ‘No, I can’t’ It’s a feeling I’m still not used to and don’t think I ever will.
What are you up to now in snowboarding?
I don’t compete anymore. I coach for the U.S. Snowboard Team, working with the rookies, so it’s awesome. I get to stay on the snow and … help the next generation of Olympic hopefuls.
Why are you taking the TED stage?
I got a taste of the pressure of what Shaun has, of being first or nothing. When you don’t succeed as a coach, they all push the finger at you. I have three simple principles in my coaching philosophy. I want to share the things that Shaun does by default, what got him there to win. It was the most impressive thing I’ve ever witnessed, and I want to tell the story. [The principles] are my gift to everyone, and I want to lead by example and give people the foundation of my coaching.