With Winter X Games medals in one hand and their snowboards in the other, the Hirano brothers – Ayumu and Kaishu – posed for frame after frame at the base of the halfpipe.
To get used to something. They could be back on the podium at the Beijing games and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the entire Japanese team took gold, silver, bronze and maybe even fourth place.
“The Japanese are a force,” said Australia’s Scotty James, who won gold at the weekend’s Winter X and joined Shaun White as one of the few male riders standing in the way of Japan’s growing dominance. “Just incredibly talented snowboarders.”
Tight Knight too. They may be bitter rivals on competition days, but they remain good friends in between. They travel together, eat together and perfect innovative tricks together. They certainly raised the bar in the halfpipe – see: recent triple corks by Ayumu Hirano and Ruka Hirano (unrelated) – along with expectations.
They have long been full of potential, only boasting Ayumu Hirano’s two silvers and Taku Hiraoka’s bronze since snowboarding burst onto the Olympic scene in 1998. But this crew of Japanese riders seems poised to take on the Beijing halfpipe with four real-life gold medal contenders at the Hirano brothers – Kaishu is almost four years younger than Ayumu – along with Ruka Hirano and Yuto Totsuka, the world’s best comes first after dominating the halfpipe for the last two years.
The country’s next best could also compete – if there weren’t a quota cap. It’s akin to the days when the US contingent mastered the whistle.
Consider this: seven of the top 20 drivers in the world are from Japan. The squad dominates competitions and leaves others wondering how they can catch up?
“That,” said Swiss snowboarder Jan Scherrer, “is the question we all ask ourselves.”
There are many theories:
— The drivers have a similar style, of course with a pinch of their own flair. “They just exude that natural ability when they ride,” James said. “They push each other to the highest level.”
– Attention to detail. “They work so hard and push each other; so that environment really helps improve them,” said Japan Halfpipe Team Coach Daisuke Murakami.
— Fearless. “It always seems like they’re less scared of doing things than I am, for example,” Scherrer said, laughing.
– Air control. “Your air awareness is fantastic,” said James.
— And perhaps most importantly: they exchange tips and constantly support each other.
Take last month at the Dew Tour when snowboarder Raibu Katayama emerged despite a broken rib and concussion from a hard fall a week earlier. Don’t compete, encourage. He stood in the front row in front of a packed crowd and cheered on his teammates in the halfpipe.
“We are brothers. We’re a family,” said Ruka Hirano. “But once we’re there for a competition, it’s like a rivalry.”
Ayumu Hirano sets the tone and pushes the boundaries. One of those trying to master one of the halfpipe’s most difficult tricks in the triple cork, which involves three head-over-head rotations.
The trick could be a game changer in Beijing and something most drivers try to incorporate. James is working on a version. Such are Ayumu Hirano’s teammates. What comes after the triple in one run could be the key to Olympic victory. Despite landing twice in competition this winter, he’s struggling with his next trick.
“It’s really hard,” 23-year-old Ayumu Hirano said through an interpreter. “I want to get (the triple cork) right. That is my strategy.”
He’s so businesslike too.
“When you see Ayumu on a podium, he doesn’t even smile,” said Louie Vito, who represented Team USA at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and recently earned a spot on the Italy team for Beijing. “You’re not cocky. They don’t show a showboat. They put on a show for everyone – and that’s what they expect.”
The Hirano brothers certainly did at Winter X as Ayumu entertained the crowd with a triple cork. His little brother also caught the eye in his camouflage outfit.
“It’s not often that you get on the podium together,” said Ayumu Hirano, who competed in skateboarding’s Olympic debut last summer at the Tokyo Olympics. “I felt like this was what I was waiting for.”
The women’s team is also solid, with Sena Tomita taking gold at Winter X. The field was missing defending champion Chloe Kim that evening, who is preparing for Beijing. The Japanese women could be in the medal mix with Kim, US teammate Maddie Mastro, Spain’s Queralt Castellet and Chinese riders like Xuetong Cai.
“They are so consistent and clean that if they stick to the schedule they will definitely threaten the podium,” snowboard commentator Jonathan “DC” Oetken said of the Japan women’s team.
Meanwhile, the Japanese men might own it.
Here’s something else: There’s another wave waiting.
“You look at their youth team and think: ‘holy cow’,” said Vito. “They are so ingrained even outside of the national team, all the way down to their youth team, that when one retires there are a lot of kids waiting to step up to prove themselves. The Japanese come ready to prostrate.”
Associated Press writer Yuri Kageyama contributed to this report.
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