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Ayumu Hirano makes history in the halfpipe, wins X Games gold

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The favorite in snowboard halfpipe for the PyeongChang Olympics? Right now, it just might be Japanese teenager Ayumu Hirano.

Hirano, the 2014 Olympic silver medalist, won gold at X Games Aspen after landing a historic run.

Already holding the lead heading into his final run, Hirano boosted a backside air nearly 20 feet out of the pipe before landing a frontside double cork 1440, cab double cork 1440, frontside double cork 1260, and backside double cork 1260.

It marked the first time that back-to-back 1440s have ever been landed in a halfpipe competition.

Hirano’s run scored a 99.0 from the judges, about as close to a perfect score as you can get when there are still other riders left to go.

Taking the silver medal was Australia’s Scotty James, who landed a frontside double cork 1260, backside double cork 1260, frontside 900, backside 360, and switch backside double cork 1260.

James’ technicality was rewarded with a 98.0 on his final run, not far off the mark set by Hirano. It continued a streak of runner-up finishes this season for James.

Next up for Hirano and James will be the PyeongChang Olympics. Both riders will be among the top favorites.

The other rider near the top of the list is two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, who withdrew from X Games after making the decision to return home and rest before the Olympics.

White recently won a qualifying event at Snowmass with a new run that scored a 100 from the judges, but that was before Hirano raised the bar with back-to-back 1440s. (White’s winning run included a frontside 1440 and back-to-back 1260s, but he did not attempt a cab 1440.)

Aside from White, the U.S. has another strong medal contender for PyeongChang in Ben Ferguson. Ferguson continued his strong season by winning X Games bronze on Sunday night. (Full results here.)

But the night was marred by an injury to Iouri Podladtchikov. The defending Olympic gold medalist from Switzerland went down after taking a hard slam on the final hit of his second run. The contest had to be delayed while medical staff attended to him.

According to a report from ESPN, Podladtchikov went to the hospital to be evaluated for a head injury after being taken off on a sled.

Podladtchikov already had to overcome one injury recently. Last March at the FIS World Championships, he suffered a torn ACL.

Earlier on Sunday, Henrik Harlaut won X Games gold in the freeski slopestyle contest. It was his second gold of the weekend, as the Swede also won the big air event on Saturday.

Norway’s Oystein Braaten and Switzerland’s Andri Ragettli rounded out the ski slopestyle podium. The top Americans were Gus Kenworthy in sixth and Nick Goepper in seventh. (Full results here.)

No private halfpipe for Shaun White before this Olympics

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Shaun White trained for the 2010 and 2014 Olympics on private halfpipes built for him by sponsors, away from prying eyes in Silverton, Colo., and Perisher, Australia.

White will not keep that tradition going for PyeongChang 2018.

“You would train on your own because you don’t want to just give someone a blueprint of how to do a trick,” White said recently in between New York City media appearances. “As I’ve gotten older, the motivation to be there in the silence to get it done is not what it used to be. You need other things to change in your outlook and attitude.”

White, who at 30 is older than any previous U.S. Olympic halfpipe snowboarder, plans to do the bulk of his training at his home mountain in Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

He’s going for a fourth Olympics and a third halfpipe gold medal. The much-talked-about storyline will be White trying to make amends for Sochi, where he crashed in one run and finished fourth.

In the early days of his career, White’s family would drive six hours to Mammoth every Friday in their 1964 Econoline van, nicknamed “Big Mo.” White became part owner of Mammoth a little over one year ago.

Training at Mammoth, White has said people have stood on the edge of the halfpipe trying to get selfies while he’s flying above the 22-foot walls.

“It’s like Jeff Gordon trying to practice driving in the streets, or shooting free throws at the local court,” White said. “Most of the time, I like when people are around, because it builds the energy.”

White will still have private sessions at Mammoth. They will increase as the Olympics get closer. In that sense, it will not be too different than four and eight years ago. Plus, the Mammoth pipe was rebuilt by Frank Wells, who also designed the Silverton and Perisher pipes.

When White does train with other riders, they will often be women. He mentioned fellow Mammoth native Chloe Kim and fellow Burton-sponsored Olympic champion Kelly Clark.

“She’s not particularly a threat to me,” White joked of the 16-year-old Kim, who has drawn comparisons to White for her precociousness.

White gradually improved this season, working his way into form following left ankle surgery last fall. He was 11th at Winter X Games — his worst finish there since 2000 — but then finished first, second and first in his last three events.

He peaked at the finale, the U.S. Open in Vail, Colo. White landed a cab double cork 1440 and a double McTwist 1260 in one run for the first time, according to The Associated Press.

That run was enough to beat Australian Scotty James, who had won X Games and the Olympic test event the previous two months, topping fields that included White both times. James is viewed as White’s top challenger at the moment.

“No dissing to Scotty or anybody, but Scotty won those events with the run I did at Vancouver in 2010,” said White, who unlike James attempted a double cork 1440 at X Games, but fell. “That’s awesome, he’s kind of doing it his own way and he’s doing it big and confident and smooth. It’s tough when you show up to the contest and it’s like, if I did that run, they know I can do that run, I did it in 2010, so I don’t think I would have gotten a great score for it. I have to go here [raises his hand higher]. And that’s fine, because I feel like it’s going to push me to that place, but at times it is very challenging when you’re expected to do something. It’s not really looking at the whole field of what’s happening, it’s like they know you and they expect something. And that’s kind of like the shoes I live in.”

White believed he and James were even at the Olympic test event. Judges scored James a 96 and White a 95.

“I need to win without a seed of doubt,” White said. “That’s what that run was all about in the [U.S.] Open. For me, I had to get that run, and it was over.”

White yearns for such situations, which simply can’t be replicated training alone.

That brought to mind a training run in Calgary this past season. White was riding in the bitter cold, struggling with the YOLO Flip 1440, when he saw six children approaching the halfpipe.

“Hey are you Shaun White?” they asked him.

White confirmed and said, “If you guys cheer, I’ll do a really cool trick for you.”

“It built a pressure scenario for me,” White said later, showing the video on his phone. “And I crushed it. That was the best I landed it the whole night.”

As far as 1440s go, both of White’s biggest rivals suffered major crashes in March.

Swiss Iouri Podladtchikov, the 2014 Olympic champion who invented the YOLO Flip 1440, tore his ACL at the world championships.

Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, the 2014 Olympic silver medalist, fell at the U.S. Open. White believed Hirano lacerated his liver and suffered a concussion, though Japanese media reported liver and MCL damage.

Canadian slopestyle star Mark McMorris suffered a life-threatening crash in March as well.

White said all of their injuries have weighed on his mind, though he plans to keep riding beyond PyeongChang. The risks and ups and downs are part of this sport.

White is familiar from his own experiences, especially in the last four years. And from this past season, coming back from the ankle surgery and X Games struggles to land the best run of his career.

“If I would have walked in, just kind of breezed through every event, maybe I wouldn’t have had the motivation I’m feeling now,” White said. “Maybe I might be like, oh, I got it in the bag. And you don’t ever want to feel that way until it’s the day of.”

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VIDEO: Watch Shaun White, at age 15, just miss 2002 Olympic team

Shaun White ends season with comeback U.S. Open win

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Shaun White capped the last season before the PyeongChang Winter Games by beating the rider who had emerged as an Olympic favorite this winter.

White, the 2006 and 2010 Olympic halfpipe champ who finished fourth at Sochi 2014, scored 92.74 points in his second of three runs to win the Burton U.S. Open for a second straight year and seventh time overall.

He came from behind to beat Australian Scotty James, who had the highest-scoring first run with 82.87 points. James beat White at both the Winter X Games in January and the PyeongChang Olympic test event in February.

“I needed those to make it today,” White said of the defeats, which included an 11th-place finish at X Games, his worst since his debut in 2000 at 13 years old. “I needed that motivation and frustration of losing.”

White said it was his last contest of the season. White had an up-and-down campaign, but it was his busiest since the Sochi Olympics. In addition to the X Games and Olympic test event defeats, and an 18th-place finish at his season opener in December, he won the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., in February.

On Saturday, White landed a cab double cork 1440 — or YOLO Flip — followed by his signature double McTwist 1260 in the same run for the first time in his career, according to The Associated Press.

“Come next season, I’m going to be a completely different rider,” White told reporter Tina Dixon on the U.S. Open live stream. “On another level, hopefully. It’s so funny because I keep hearing from people about this [2018] Olympics and whatnot. I’m already thinking about China [the 2022 Beijing Winter Games]. I’m going to keep going.”

Chase Josey, emerging as a favorite for one of four U.S. Olympic team spots, was third on Saturday. Sochi Olympic champion Iouri Podladtchikov was fourth, and 2014 and 2015 Winter X Games champion Danny Davis was sixth.

Japan Olympic silver medalist Ayumu Hirano was taken to a hospital for further evaluation after a fall in his second run, Dixon reported.

Chloe Kim won the women’s final after three-time Olympic medalist Kelly Clark pulled out for precautionary reasons following a warm-up crash.

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