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Air Apparent
AUSTIN MURPHY
December 16, 2013
He's only 15, but Ayumu Hirano is the biggest threat to Shaun White's Olympic dominance
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December 16, 2013

Air Apparent

He's only 15, but Ayumu Hirano is the biggest threat to Shaun White's Olympic dominance

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Don't be fooled by the dazzling smile and banter White trots out for public consumption: He is a ferocious competitor. It's not in his nature to befriend a rival, although it wouldn't be surprising to learn that the ex-prodigy harbors some affection for the new prodigy. Their talents are similar, and similarly huge. They have other parallels too.

Shaun White is named after Shaun Tomson, a hard-charging South African surfer and former world champion who was admired by Roger White, Shaun's father. Roger loved surfing; it bummed him out that Shaun didn't. On his first day in the water, in Southern California, Shaun got hit in the face with his board, became hypothermic and never wanted to go back.

Ayumu's father, Hidenori, never did realize his own quixotic dream of becoming a professional surfer. Instead, he opened a surf shop in the coastal city of Murakami and then a skate park. Ayumu doesn't surf much, explaining that the water where he lives is very cold.

Hirano was the youngest athlete in the Winter X Games since 2000—when White competed as a 13-year-old.

There are also similarities on the course, starting with their shared aptitude for amplitude. The ability to go big gives them time in the air to complete the rotations of whatever double-cork trick they're throwing. While some riders appear to be muscling their turns, the very best appear smooth and unhurried.

It remains to be seen if the prodigy shares the former prodigy's nerves of tungsten. Plenty of riders have made runs at White; some have beaten him. But on the day that the eyes of the world are on the sport—the Olympic finals—the challengers have found the moment too big, the pressure too much. White seems to take up residence in their heads.

"When I'm in competition," says Hirano, "I don't care about other riders. I focus on myself. It doesn't really matter who else is riding."

The pipe can be cruel. Kevin Pearce looked like White's biggest threat heading into the 2010 Vancouver Games, but he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a training accident six weeks before the Olympics. His competition days over, Pearce is now a color analyst on the X Games. In September another supremely gifted American rider, Luke Mitrani, was unsuccessful in his attempt to land a frontside double cork 1080, dropping 30 feet out of the sky and fracturing a vertebra. Mitrani may someday return to competition, but he won't be in Sochi.

Neither will Hirano's mentor and countryman, the revered and sometimes iconoclastic Kazuhiro Kokubo. "Kazu" isn't hurt. He's just not that interested in competing in these Olympics, according to Teter, his coach. Kokubo made headlines at the last Olympics for arriving at the Vancouver Games with his tie loose, shirt untucked and trousers sagging; in other words, he dressed like a 'boarder. For his lack of conformity Kazu was forced to issue an apology and suspended from the opening ceremony.

Kokubo is better known, among snowboarders, for winning back-to-back U.S. Opens and for riding with a distinctive style, a panache instantly recognizable in the pipe. While many riders throw the same hits in the same order on each of their runs, ad nauseam, that lack of variety and imagination would bore Kazu. Yes, he wants to win, but he also needs to keep himself interested. In the finals of Winter X two years ago, each of his three runs was completely different.

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