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.”