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A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
To spend time with Ayumu Hirano on a day he is not snowboarding is to come away feeling slightly shortchanged. He is an incandescent talent in the halfpipe, barely 15 years old and already nipping at the heels of the best 'boarder in the world. Shaun White, who has won gold in the pipe at the last two Winter Olympics, will head to Sochi in less than two months minus his familiar cape of ginger hair but with a new rival.
Likewise, any journalist laboring to extract sentences from Hirano is nagged by the suspicion that he is being shortchanged a few words. Ayumu speaks little English and isn't especially forthcoming in his native Japanese, preferring to let his actions speak for him. What economical replies he does offer are further compressed when filtered through his translator:
"He's always liked snowboarding better than [skateboarding]."
"He's always enjoyed riding; he's never been afraid."
We don't need a translator to know that Hirano is fearless. That becomes evident on the first hit, or trick, of his run, when he launches a gigantic straight air—soaring up to 24 feet over the lip of the pipe, as if expelled from a circus cannon. He could peruse a paperback up there before descending and completing the rest of his run, which is consistently stylish, technically precise and characterized by that same insane amplitude.
How big can the little guy—he is about 5'2", 115 pounds, in his snowboarding kit—go? At this point in the season, says Hirano's coach, Elijah Teter, "he's going bigger than every single person out there." That includes White, who "may be warming up his tricks," Teter allows. Gearing up for his third Olympics, the 27-year-old White has his drill down by now. He wants to peak in mid-February, not early December.
Hirano's legend was born in March 2011. Too young at 12—according to the rules, at least—to tangle with the big boys at Burton's U.S. Open in Stratton, Vt., he was relegated to the Junior Jams category. Between rounds of the men's halfpipe competition, however, he dropped in and poached a run that would've earned him a spot in the finals had he been eligible. In August 2012 he was invited to compete with the grown-ups at a Burton event in New Zealand. Hirano won. He was 13. The following January he got an invitation to compete in the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo. On snowboarding's biggest non-Olympic stage, he took silver. The event was won by White, who can be seen on an X Games YouTube video exclaiming, "The Japanese rider who got second is 14 years old. It's amazing!"
Asked if they are on friendly terms, "the Japanese rider" replies, through his translator, "I don't really have much of a relationship with him. But at least he says 'Hi, how's it going?' "