'I've been snowboarding since I was 4': Japanese snowboarder aims for Olympic gold
ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — His first name, loosely translated into English, means "Walk the Dream ." No wonder, then, that back home in Japan, expectations soar nearly as high as snowboarder Ayumu Hirano's jumps above the halfpipe.
Hirano stands at only 5-foot-3 (1.61 meters) but his newest tricks are huge. He's been working on stringing together back-to-back 1440s — a 1440 is the toughest trick in the halfpipe — and if he pulls it off next month at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, he could find himself at the top of the podium — above Shaun White, above Australia's Scotty James, above defending champion Iouri Podladtchikov (iPod for short) and all the other contenders in snowboarding's signature event.
Hirano already has a silver medal — earned at the Sochi Games four years ago. Gold would not be too big of a stretch, especially if White were to have another off day, the likes of which he endured when he finished fourth in 2014.
Too much hype? By now, there's really no such thing for Hirano , who caught White's eye when he was young.
FUTURE OLYMPIANS | Share Photos of the Athletes in Your Life
"He had a tough go of things because he was like 14 or so and they were like, 'You're going to be the next big thing,'" said White, who will face Hirano this week at the Winter X Games in an Olympics preview. "It's hard to be the up-and-coming rider to, all of sudden, they're comparing you to me. It's a lot to live up to those expectations. So, he's kinda made his way and he's having his breakout. He's an interesting rider. He's the guy who wins, or sometimes he won't make finals. It's interesting to watch. ... Really happy for him."
On a picturesque December day, Hirano walked through the village at Copper Mountain, Colorado, without anyone even casting a second glace in his direction. He appreciates this sort of anonymity. Back home, it's not the same. Ever since he strapped on a snowboard and started going big, he's drawn attention. Burton snowboards saw his videos on YouTube and handed him an endorsement contract when he was in fourth grade.
And yet, his mission remains simple: Make his country even more aware of what exactly he does. Snowboarding made its Olympic debut at the Nagano Games in Japan, and ever since, the country has been trying to cash in on its potential in the sport. Riders like White have curtailed some of the success, at least at the highest level. But Hirano and Taku Hiraoka finished 2-3 at the last Olympics and another Japanese rider, 16-year-old Yuto Totsuka, has been going big in the lead-up to this year's games, as well.
Hirano, who is only 19, views himself as not only the present in Japanese snowboarding, but someone who can inspire the next generation.
"That's why I'm aiming for that gold, so more people can see how great snowboarding can be," Hirano said through a translator as he sipped coffee inside a restaurant.
Want to make Hirano grin? Ask him about his first name. He gets that quite a bit.
"I've been snowboarding since I was 4, so maybe my parents did have this in mind in hopes that I would walk to my dream," he said. "They just wanted what was best for me."
At first, he was a skateboarder, with his father building a skateboard ramp behind a surf shop he owned for Hirano and his older brother, Eiju, to practice. Hirano's surfing career never really flourished, though, after his brother had an accident while surfing.
"Since I was so small, I barely remember what happened," Hirano said. "But we stepped away from surfing and got into skateboarding and snowboarding."
The closest halfpipe to his house as a kid was about an hour away. It wasn't anywhere near regulation size, but that didn't matter. The small halfpipe became his playground.
"I used to do about 280 runs a day for practice," said Hirano, who's from Murakami, Japan. "Right now, I can't even imagine doing that."
His idols were fellow Japanese rider Kazuhiro Kokubo and, of course, White.
Hirano's big breakthrough was in 2013, when he captured silver at Winter X as a 14-year-old. White talked glowingly at the time of the kid everyone needed to keep their eye on.
"It was just a life-changing moment for me," said Hirano, who is back to full health after lacerating his kidney and liver, along with hurting his knee, during a fall in the halfpipe at the Burton U.S. Open last March. "That was a moment I was competing with the best in the world. I think that was the contest which kind of changed my mentality toward what my goals are and where I want to be from here on as a professional. It really opened up my mind."
Then along came Sochi a year later, when "Walk the Dream" found himself stepping onto the Olympic podium.
To take the next step, Hirano will need to nail the back-to-back 14s. If he does, and soars as high above the halfpipe as he usually does — and he usually rivals White in that area — there could be a gold medal waiting for him after the Olympic final on Feb. 14.
"It's a great opportunity for me to show what I'm capable," Hirano said, "and let the world know who I am."
AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed.
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org