Last year marked the rocket-like big-league debut of then 14-year-old Japanese mini-shred Ayumu Hirano. The soft-spoken, 5-foot, 2-inch, 120-pound newbie quickly established himself as a main contender for the Olympic stage with straight airs in the 20-foot range and flawlessly linked 900s, 1080s, and double corks too.
Throw in a handful of second-place finishes at the X Games and the U.S. Open of snowboarding, right behind the nearly unbeatable Shaun White, and suddenly the name Ayumu Hirano was buzzing on everyone's lips. Was Kazu Kokubo’s prodigy the next Flying Tomato? Could Hirano be the one to upset White in Sochi?
But now, with the Olympics well underway and men's snowboarding halfpipe taking the main stage Tuesday afternoon, the buzz around Hirano has all but passed. After winning the FIS World Cup opener in Cardrona, New Zealand, this August, he's barely made a dent in the standings, finishing sixth and 13th at the Dew Tour and the Copper Mountain, Colorado, Grand Prix, respectively. Both were solid finals' finishes, but not the messianic results we'd come to expect from Hirano after his 2012-13 breakout season. With a foot injury sidelining him at X Games last month and an action-packed season of next-level riding by other Olympic contenders like Danny Davis, Iouri Podladtchikov, and Greg Bretz, the short-term memory banks of the snowboarding community have all but forgotten Hirano’s potential.
But they shouldn't. While Hirano appears to have fallen off the map this season due to injury or a teenage growth spurt or the unfamiliar feeling of Olympic pressure, he can't be counted out. Not with his scene-stealing amplitude and displays of technical precision, guaranteed to impress the Olympic judges. If we've learned anything in the last five Olympic cycles, huge air, perfect landings, and technical combos put people on the podium, and Hirano has that combo down pat.
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