Spotlight on Ayumu Hirano until I-Pod, White return

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Ayumu Hirano, who in Sochi won a snowboard halfpipe silver medal at age 15, said life changed after the Olympics.

In his Japanese hometown, people recognized him more and stopped him on the streets, asking for pictures and autographs.

Hirano, who trains in Vail, Colo., spent four or five months back in Japan following the Olympics, catching up on high school makeup tests and appearing at events honoring his medal, including a parade in his native Niigata prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast.

The man of few English words likely sensed a different atmosphere at the Dew Tour Mountain Championships in Breckenridge, Colo., last week.

The competition did not include Shaun White or Iouri Podladtchikov, the men who combined to win the last three Olympic halfpipe titles.

White, a 28-year-old who finished fourth in Sochi, in September dismissed any notion of retirement. He is also playing shows with his band and organizing a ski and snowboard event to be held at the Rose Bowl in February (he won’t ride there, though). He has not publicly announced when he will return to competition.

Podladtchikov, a 26-year-old Russian-born Swiss who won gold in Sochi, underwent ankle surgery in November. At the time, Swiss officials said Podladtchikov was uncertain for the World Championships in January, which would also seem to put his status for the Winter X Games, also in January, in doubt.

Hirano continues to ride. He said a victory wouldn’t mean any less without White or Podladtchikov in the field.

“It doesn’t really matter to me who’s competing,” Hirano told Alli Sports through a translator before the Dew Tour final, where he placed a low fifth but one spot higher than last year and two spots ahead of countryman and Olympic bronze medalist Taku Hiraoka. “All that matters is giving the best that I’ve got.”

At just over five feet, Hirano has been billed as the sport’s next big thing since placing 13th at the 2011 U.S. Open as a 12-year-old.

In 2013, he became the youngest halfpipe rider at the X Games since White in 2000. Hirano won silver behind White, catapulting his potential going into the Olympic year.

Hirano, who is coached in Vail by the older brother of 2006 U.S. Olympic halfpipe women’s champion Hannah Teter, said he hasn’t spoken to White or Podladtchikov since February.

Not that they could say much to each other. In an Alli Sports interview, Hirano’s only English was “thank you.”

In Sochi, Hirano posted the second-highest score in qualifying (to White) and led the final after the first run. Then Podladtchikov landed his signature YOLO Flip in his second and final run to jump ahead.

Hirano had fallen to third place by the time he took his final run but showed mettle in upping his score by 2.75 points, securing silver under the pressure and lights in the Caucasus Mountains.

He became the youngest Olympic snowboarding medalist, across all disciplines, by three years. He and Hiraoka became Japan’s first Olympic snowboard medalists.

“I’m not satisfied with the result,” Hirano says now. “I compete with I-Pod in all these TTR [World Snowboarding Tour] events and European Open, U.S. Open. Sometimes he wins certain contests. Sometimes I win. [The Olympics] are something that I wish I could have done better, but it’s just the way it is.”

Sochi champions passed over for Athlete of the Year awards

Kyle Dake repeats as world wrestling champ; next challenge: Jordan Burroughs

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Kyle Dake recovered from an unspecified freak accident that required surgery, and not wrestling in a meet for eight months, to repeat as world champion at 79kg, a non-Olympic weight class, on Sunday.

The next six months will bring another challenge — beating Jordan Burroughs for an Olympic spot.

“Every year I have a goal of being the best guy in the world. Last year, I proved it. This year, I proved it,” Dake told Trackwrestling.com. “I’ve got my work cut out for me, coming up.”

Dake, a four-time NCAA champion at Cornell who considered quitting after finishing second at U.S. trials year after year, is now in his freestyle prime. He backed up going unscored on at worlds last year by beating his four opponents in Kazakhstan this week by a combined 27-4, capped by topping Azerbaijan’s Jabrayil Hasanov 4-2 in a final rematch.

Kid Dynamite is unquestionably one of the world’s best pound-for-pound wrestlers.

That was not the case four years ago. Then, an internationally inexperienced Dake moved out of the 74kg division, and up to 86kg for the Olympic year, to avoid facing Burroughs because Burroughs had a bye into the Olympic trials final as the reigning world champion. Dake ended up losing the 86kg trials final to J’den Cox, who on Saturday repeated as world champion himself.

The four-year difference would seem to favor Dake over Burroughs at April’s trials, where Dake has a bye into the semifinals and Burroughs into the final.

Burroughs, at 31 years old, is on the back end of his career. He just missed the finals of back-to-back world championships for the first time, though he came back for bronze medals. Burroughs has made every U.S. world or Olympic team at 74kg dating to 2011 and earned a medal every time, save his tearful Rio Olympic exit.

Dake, reluctant four years ago to detail his decision to move out of 74kg, determined before this week’s worlds that he would choose 74kg over 86kg (where Cox likely waits again).

“74 seems like a good spot for me,” Dake told Trackwrestling last month.

The number of weight classes drops from 10 at worlds to six at the Olympics, ensuring that at least two of these Americans will not make the Tokyo team:

Burroughs — 5x Olympic/world champion
Dake — 2x world champion
David Taylor — 2018 World champion (missed 2019 while injured)
Cox — 2x world champion
Kyle Snyder — 2x Olympic/world champion

Later Sunday, Snyder rallied from being upset in the 97kg semifinals on Saturday to snag a bronze medal with a 5-0 win over Georgian Elizbar Odikadze. A potential third straight world final between Snyder and Russian Abdulrashid Sadulayev was the most anticipated match of the championships, but Snyder was beaten one match early by Azerbaijan’s Sharif Sharifov.

Sadulayev, meanwhile, blanked Sharifov 4-0 to complete a 30-3 romp through his four matches to repeat as world champ.

“The hardest part about it I would say is just the fact that I didn’t get to wrestle Sadulayev again,” said Snyder, a Rio Olympic champion and a 2015 and 2017 World champion who shared bus and elevator rides with Sadulayev on Saturday and Sunday. “I felt prepared for him.”

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MORE: Jordan Burroughs: Time is running out

Israel is first nation to qualify for 2020 Olympic baseball tournament

Margo Sugarman
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Israel’s baseball team, which captivated at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, is headed to its first Olympics next summer.

Israel won a joint European-African tournament to become the first nation to qualify for baseball’s return to the Games after the sport was voted off the program after Beijing 2008.

It joins host nation Japan. Four more countries will qualify — two at the global Premier12 in November, another from the Americas and one more from a last-chance qualifier next year.

Israel, ranked 19th in the world, advanced via its best opportunity in Italy this week. It upset the highest-ranked European nations — the Netherlands (No. 8) and host Italy (No. 16) — and wrapped it up with an 11-1 win over South Africa on Sunday.

Its run came two years after Israel, then ranked 41st, beat South Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Cuba before bowing out of the World Baseball Classic. And one week after Israel finished fourth at the European Championship.

Israel’s roster at this week’s Olympic qualifier lacked many of the MLB veterans that it had at the World Baseball Classic. Israeli citizenship was not required at the WBC.

Its most recognizable player is Danny Valencia, an infielder who played parts of nine MLB seasons from 2010-18. Joey Wagman, its starting pitcher for its first and last games this week, plies his trade for the independent-league Milwaukee Milkmen.

MLB players are unlikely to feature at the Tokyo Games, but minor leaguers are expected to be eligible as in the past.

The rest of the Olympic field is likely to be nations from North America (such as the U.S., Cuba, Mexico or Canada) or Asia (South Korea, Chinese Taipei) or Australia.

Baseball will not be on the 2024 Olympic program but could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

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MORE: USA Baseball taps longtime catcher to be Olympic qualifying manager