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Source: USA TODAY
COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. – Moments before he put down an X Games run that would make him the youngest medalist ever, Ayumu Hirano crashed hard enough to crack his helmet.
From 13 feet up, he hit the deck of the halfpipe before falling another 22 feet to the flat bottom. He was sore, getting the wind knocked out of him, but not concussed. At his first X Games, Hirano, then 14, could have easily walked away. The snowboarder would have plenty more chances to compete in an event he’d watched on DVD at home in Japan as a kid, his coaches told him.
Full run, he said, landing the same run he’d crashed on to take silver. Since medaling in Aspen in January, Hirano has had a breakout year that could set him up to win his country’s first Olympic medal in the event in Sochi. The Games open in 58 days.
“I knew how big of an event X Games was and I knew that after this X Games, it would lead to something more for my career so I decided to just compete,” Hirano told USA TODAY Sports through a translator last week.
On Thursday, two weeks past his 15th birthday, Hirano will compete in the Dew Tour iON Mountain Championships along with some of the best riders in the world. The event serves as the first qualifying event for those hoping to make the U.S. team.
Comparisons to Shaun White, the king of the sport, followed when Hirano’s second-place effort came as White won his sixth consecutive gold in the event. Kevin Pearce, the last rider to challenge White’s supremacy before a traumatic brain injury ended his career, has called Hirano the next big thing in the sport.
“If you want to look at him and other great riders at a similar age, he’s far ahead of them,” said Ben Boyd, one of Hirano’s coaches at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. “He’s just far ahead of them. And it’s not just riding. It’s his mental approach to snowboarding. It’s not getting flustered, just having the ability to perform under pressure.”
Bigger air than most
For Elijah Teter, who also coaches Hirano for the same club, Hirano’s talent was obvious early. At 12 years old, he competed in the U.S. Open Junior Championships in Vermont but made a splash when he held his own with the pros. He finished 13th.
“He was riding perfect,” said Teter. “You could just tell he was going to be a good rider.”
Not long after, Hirano and his older brother, Eiju, moved to the United States to train with Teter and Boyd and signed Carl Harris as their agent and manager.
The diminutive rider won the Burton High Fives event in New Zealand to open the 2013 season, but it was his X Games medal that made him a virtual overnight sensation. He followed it up with second at the Burton U.S. Open and first at the Burton European Open.
Hirano was the World Snowboard Tour Halfpipe Champion last year. In August, he won his first World Cup event in the season opener in New Zealand.
Key to his success is amplitude matched only by White. Hirano, who is 5-foot-1 and 120 pounds, flew more than 18 feet out of the pipe last year in Aspen. He routinely gets bigger air than most all other riders.
“The bigger you go, the easier it is,” said Teter. “It’s a lot scarier. It just looks so effortless.”
Credit his father’s influence for that. Hidenori Hirano hoped his sons would be surfers – Ayumu eschewed it because he wasn’t a good swimmer and the water was too cold – and settled for skateboarders and snowboarders instead.
Hirano picked up both when he was 4. Time spent at the skate park his father owns in Murakami, Japan, has translated to on-snow success.
On a cold day last week after Hirano trained with the national team, the soft-spoken rider explains the relationship. Vert skating demands a more precise landing, making snowboarding a more forgiving (and therefore easier) sport for the prodigy.
As it is, Hirano’s coaches say it’s what he does in the pipe – rather than the high-flying tricks out of it – that have made him successful. He pops out of the pipe almost vertically. When he lands, he is high enough on the pipe wall to retain the speed that allows for his amplitude.
He seemingly always lands on the right line, allowing for smooth transitions that make his riding look effortless and often give him an extra hit during his run.
“He’s got an incredible feel for his board,” said Boyd. “It’s just something you can’t really coach.”
Potential to push White
Success of the last year has dictated Hirano learn more English, and last week he greeted a reporter with a phrase he has mastered – “Nice to meet you.”
In Japanese and in a tone sometimes barely audible, he answered questions deliberately and thoughtfully as he stared beyond his translator to the Rockies. When Harris says Hirano doesn’t look at you but through you, this is what he means. Hirano communicates with his coaches mostly through gestures and sometimes a translator, but it is the depth of his stare that makes him a bit of a mystery.
Those closest to him say a breakout year has done little to change him. Yes, he has more sponsorship commitments, but he’s the same kid. When he is home in Japan, the high school freshman attends school in an attempt to make up all that he misses. He is, by all accounts, a normal teenager and not a snowboarding superstar while he is there.
“He went from a regional athlete to the same level as any global snowboarder,” said Harris. “He’s still the same today as he was when he was 12.”
Although he’s still one of the youngest pro riders, Hirano has developed to the point where he is expected to compete with White.
Since they started coaching him, Boyd and Teter have worked with Hirano on adding style to his runs by varying the way he grabs his board. At the X Games, Hirano said he knew he didn’t have the tricks to beat White.
That might still be the case, but it won’t be for lack of trying. Hirano has added at least one trick his repertoire since last season – he won’t share what – and could debut it before Sochi, perhaps at the X Games.
“Right now, if he wants to become the best contest rider, then he does have what it takes,” said Kazu Kokubo, a veteran Japanese rider and Olympian who has become Hirano’s mentor. “But from here on, he’s gonna have to think on his own what kind of rider he wants to be.”
For now, that is the best in the sport. Unlike American riders who have endured years of losing to White, Hirano is unafraid to say he’d like to surpass the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist.
While confident, Hirano says it without an ounce of cockiness. It’s clear he respects White, but when asked he is unabashedly open about his desire to unseat him.
“He is a top rider, but that’s not the end of my path beating Shaun,” Hirano said. “I just want to overcome that and spread my name across the world.”
Hirano might soon have that chance. He is a favorite to make the Japanese Olympic team.
Will he unseat White? That’s a tall order that few snowboarders have come close to. But it’s similarity with White that might give Hirano the best chance.
Discussing White a few weeks ago, Harris suggested to Kokubo that he could compete at the same level as White if he’d been built a private halfpipe as White’s sponsors have done with him twice.
Not so, said Kokubo, admitting he doesn’t have the same focus White does.
Well who does, asked Harris.
Ayumu, Kokubo replied.