Ayumu Hirano is far from your average teen

MEGAN LEVY
Last updated 14:48 12/02/2014
Ayumu Hirano
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BRIGHT FUTURE AHEAD: Ayumu Hirano awaits his silver medal on the podium in Sochi.

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The view from the medal podium in Sochi is a lot different to the halls of his high school back in Japan, where other kids his age spend their days.

But everyone who's anyone in snowboarding agrees: Ayumu Hirano is far from your average 15-year-old boy.

On Tuesday night, the diminutive teenage prodigy, who weighs a mere 50 kilograms, jumped and authoritatively flipped his way to the Winter Olympics silver medal in the snowboard halfpipe competition that for so long has been dominated by American Shaun White.

White, the defending Olympic champion and so-called Flying Tomato, failed to win a medal on a halfpipe that has been criticised by competitors as being dangerous, "crappy" and "garbage".

Switzerland's Iouri Podladtchikov, the man nicknamed iPod, snatched gold in the event with a score of 94.75, ahead of Hirano with 93.5 and Japan's Taku Hiraoka, who scored 92.25.

Hirano only last year scraped over the age limit allowing him to compete in World Cup events, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Japan.

But his high-flying tricks, that regularly see him pull off bigger stunts than his larger and older competitors, have seen him hailed as a likely successor to 27-year-old White.

Sports Illustrated named Hirano as the "Air Apparent" in its December issue.

"He's a badass," 20-year-old Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris, who himself has been named as a rising snowboarding star, told Rolling Stone last year.

"He goes big, and he's, like, two feet tall. In two years, he'll be the cat's meow."

Hirano began snowboarding at the age of four.

He was introduced to sport by his father, Hidenori, who owns a surf shop and a skate park in their hometown on Murakami, a small city on the coast of Japan.

Hirano's father originally wanted his son to become a surfer, but Hirano shied away from that option. He wasn't a great swimmer, and besides, the water was too cold in Japan.

Instead, the boy nicknamed MuMu and his older brother, Eiju, began competing in vertical skateboarding competitions.

Hirano rides goofy - with his right foot forward - and the skills he perfected on his skateboard translated well to snowboarding.

His first big international snowboarding success came in March 2011, when he won the Burton US Junior Open.

At the time he was just 12 years old, and his age prevented him from entering the open division of the event. But between rounds he dropped into the pipe and completed a run that would have earned him a place in the open finals, according to Sports Illustrated.

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The following year he was invited to compete in the open event in New Zealand. He won. He was just 13.

Then last year, he was invited to compete in the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado, snowboarding's biggest non-Olympic stage.

He took silver in the halfpipe behind 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!"

Hirano continued on with a first place at the Burton European Open, a second place at the Burton US Open, and a third place at the Oakley Arctic Challenge, earning him the 2012/2013 Halfpipe World Tour Champion title. He was the youngest rider to achieve this.

White has since said he loves to watch Hirano ride.

"It's a nice reminder about the sport to me ... because he's not the biggest guy out there, and I'm not the biggest," White told the Denver Post.

"It doesn't really make a difference, the size. It's all your mind-set and how you use the terrain, and he's a great example of that."

Hirano and his brother, also a snowboarder, now spend their winters in the US, where they train under Ben Boyd and Elijah Teter at the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail.

Hirano's coaches told USA Today that it's what he does in the pipe, rather than the high-flying tricks out of it, that have made him successful.

Hirano pops out of the pipe almost vertically, a skill perhaps learned on the skateboard where moves must be more precise. When he lands, he is high enough on the pipe wall to retain the speed that allows for his amplitude.

"If you want to look at him and other great riders at a similar age, he's far ahead of them," Boyd told USA Today.

"He's just far ahead of them. And it's not just riding. It's his mental approach to snowboarding. It's not getting flustered, just having the ability to perform under pressure."

When Hirano returns home to Japan, he crams months of studies between his daily training sessions.

"My school is very supportive of my snowboarding, so they make it happen for me," he said. "My parents, too, are down with me snowboarding, and they are very supportive. It is what I do best."

- Sydney Morning Herald

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