Discovering More than a Label

Shaun White is kind of a jerk, right? A Washington Post reporter discovers the problem of labeling people. “Never be too sure of where you’re going because you might just end up someplace else, crying on a mountaintop with a mother whose child’s cancer is thankfully in remission, with a rich and famous action sports star who delivered the Olympic moment of his life on the day he failed to win a medal.”

Homily on Ps 119:33-40/Tracey Kelly/Preached to the Lower School of St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School/February 24, 2014

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes
and I will observe it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.

Turn my heart to your decrees,
and not to selfish gain.
Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;
give me life in your ways.

Confirm to your servant your promise,
which is for those who fear you.
Turn away the disgrace that I dread,
for your ordinances are good.
See, I have longed for your precepts;
in your righteousness give me life.

Psalm 119:33-40

Shaun White, a great guy

Over the past two and a half weeks, more than 2,800 men and women, from 89 countries, gathered in Sochi, Russia, to compete in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

Now most of these athletes did not win a medal. Most of these athletes went to the Olympic Games knowing that they probably wouldn’t win anything. That’s okay. Just being there, competing for their country, is a huge accomplishment. Just being there made them an Olympian.

The athlete I want to talk about today did have a chance at a medal.  I’m going to talk this morning about Shaun White, the snowboarder.

I first noticed him in the 2006 Olympics. He won gold in the snowboard halfpipe event. He had bright red hair so his nickname was “the Flying Tomato.” He had a big smile and was very likeable and he got lots of interviews on TV.

By the time the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver Canada came along, Shaun White was the superstar of the snowboarding world. He won another gold medal. And if you include ten years of Winter X games, Shaun has won more than 18 medals. He had become the most recognizable snowboarder in the world. He had lots of commercial endorsements and started to make a lot of money.


But rumors started surfacing that perhaps Shaun White wasn’t a very nice guy after all. It was said that he wasn’t very popular among other competitive skateboarders. Shaun was criticized for refusing to let other snowboarders train on the expensive halfpipe that was built for him by one of his corporate sponsors.

People were saying that Shaun White had become arrogant, stuck up, that he thought he was better than everyone else. They said that he was more interested in winning than being friends or being nice to anyone.

Mike Wise, a sports columnist for the Washington Post newspaper, went to Sochi to write about the Olympics. He had heard the unflattering rumors about Shaun White. Mike was prepared to write a scathing article which exposed Shaun White as the not-so-nice guy that he was. He needed to be put back in place, he thought. “He needed to remember the, well, dudeliness that got him here.”

What Mike discovered instead

But the reporter, Mike Wise, discovered a very different side of Shaun White instead. About an hour before Shaun White competed, Mike met a kid name Ben Hughes standing at the sidelines. Ben was there with his mother Liz, and their friend, Kaitlyn Lyles. It turns out that Ben and Kaitlyn were there because of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. When Ben was 6 years old he was diagnosed with leukemia, a type of cancer. He was really inspired by Shaun White while he was undergoing his medical treatments. He’s going to be alright now. The leukemia is gone, but he got to make a wish. He wished to see Shaun White compete at the Olympics.

Mike Wise asked when Ben and Kaitlyn would get to meet White. “They don’t,” Liz said. “That’s not part of the deal. We just get to watch. They go home Friday after we see a hockey game. This is our only day here. I know. What can you do?””

This bothered Mike Wise a lot. These two kids had travelled thousands of miles to see their Olympic hero. And now they were going to stand, oh, about 20 feet away from Shaun White and not actually get to meet him.

So Mike Wise, using his press credentials, went over to the area where the members of the press could talk to the athletes. He told the U.S. snowboard team, told him about Ben, the kid behind him.

And pretty soon, Shaun White comes along, about to meet with the newspaper reporters. Mike Wise tries to decide if it would be okay to turn about and pick up Ben over the barricade and bring him into the press area.

I’ll continue with Mike’s words:

I was torn when White suddenly made the decision for me. [The press director] had directed [Shaun] to where Ben was, their eyes met and that was it.

I don’t know if White has caught more rarefied air in that moment, catapulting himself in one leap over the barricade. I do know one 10-year-old’s life will never be the same.

He high-fived them, they all kind of hugged as Ben shook his head in awe.

Liz Hughes [Ben’s Mom] finally covered her mouth as tears tumbled from her eyes.

“Thank you,” she said, grabbing my arm. “Thank you.”

“You’re . . . You’re . . .” I couldn’t speak. I just turned away, looked up at the mountains and wiped my eyes, finishing the “Welcome” part a minute later.

You think Ben was shocked? I came here ready to prick a legend’s balloon, resolute that the carefree kid I met eight years ago …was now an out-of-touch celebrity that didn’t connect with real people anymore.

And then that angle crumbled beneath a wall of emotion.

The truth is, it was gone the moment I met his mother behind the stands hours earlier, before White had hurdled that barrier. … Cathy White reminded me Shaun is a survivor of two open-heart surgeries as a young child, that he belongs to the “Zipper Club,” with children whose chests have been surgically cut open. He gives 8 percent of his $15 million a year to the St. Jude’s children’s fund. Shaun’s sister, Cathy’s daughter, underwent 19 brain surgeries as a child.

“I wish him the best of health,” White said of Ben, hours later at a news conference, saying he really enjoyed the encounter. “For me to be remembered in this sport, I don’t know if tonight makes or breaks my place in the sport. I would like to be remembered as more than a snowboarder. This is one big part of who I am, but it’s not all who I am. So yeah.

The problem with labels

What Mike Wise learned is that trying to pin a label on someone is tricky. We all label people. Maybe we say someone is smart, or stuck-up. Good at math or good at art. Mean or nice. 

Labels help us define our identities. The problem with labels is that they limit how we see people and what we think of people. People are far more complicated than just being “good” or “bad.” All of us do things that are admirable or “good.” And all do or say things that are unkind or “bad.”

And each of us is far more interesting and complicated than that which any one label can say about us.

Maybe Shaun White is not always a “great guy.” Maybe he sometimes makes the other snowboarders mad. I don’t know. I’m wasn’t there.

Shaun White did not win a medal. He wiped out in his first run of the finals and ended up finishing fourth. But on a day when he had every right to be disappointed, or to just walk away and not talk to anyone, he did something that showed what a great guy he can be.

“For every kid with a terminal disease, for every reporter convinced he has found the essence of who a person is, there is a moral to this story:

“Never be too sure of where you’re going because you might just end up someplace else, crying on a mountaintop with a mother whose child’s cancer is thankfully in remission, with a rich and famous action sports star who delivered the Olympic moment of his life on the day he failed to win a medal.”


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