X Games SuperPipe -- the next generation
ASPEN, Colo. -- When 13-year-old Chloe Kim drops into the X Games Aspen SuperPipe on Saturday night, the crowd will likely react much like it did when a then-14-year-old Ayumu Hirano blasted 19 feet out on his first hit in Men's SuperPipe elims last year.
First there will be a collective intake of breath, followed by a silence that will be broken by the exclamation, "Who was that? Wait, she's how old?"
Kim, like Hirano, is almost half the age of the pipe veterans she competes against. But both have mastered the elusive skill of transition riding that allows them to get twice as high out of the halfpipe as nearly every other competitor.
"It will be exciting because I've never done a contest at night," says Kim, of what she's looking forward to most in riding at her first X Games. "My bedtime is like eight, so I should be sleeping when they're doing X Games."
Kim, who's just five-foot, two-inches tall, has an air of confidence and a maturity displayed in her riding level that far exceeds her years. But she still has the endearing trademarks of a girl who is barely a teen.
"I asked her what her ultimate, dream sponsorship would be," says Ryan Runke, one of the many agents courting Kim for representation right now. "She said, 'Hello Kitty.' It was awesome."
If this X Games SuperPipe follows the trend of the Olympic qualifying season so far, Kim won't be the only rookie making an impressive debut in Aspen this week.
There is also 20-year-old Taylor Gold, who podiumed in four out of the five U.S. Olympic qualifiers this year and was the first snowboarder to secure a spot on the U.S. Olympic halfpipe team.
And there is his friend Ben Ferguson, 19, who never had a pro-level podium finish until the two third-place spots he won in the same series. Both X Games Aspen rookies came seemingly out of nowhere this year, nabbing crucial podium spots that kept big names like Scotty Lago and Louie Vito out of Olympic contention.
"Ben and I just wanted to come into this season and shake things up and surprise people," says Gold. "We came in just wanting, more than anything, to have fun. A lot of guys were focusing on results, and I think that can mess with people's minds."
Ferguson agrees. "I've been working really hard, but also having lots of fun," he says. "I think that's where success comes from. That's the whole point. You have to have fun when you compete, even though it's serious."
Gold says they have an edge because expectations are low: "We don't have those big endorsement deals riding on us."
Having arrived on competitive snowboarding's biggest stage with no pressure to win, and absolutely nothing to lose, rookies are sometimes able to throw down the runs of their lives, unseating veteran snowboarders who can't seem to get out of their heads.
Whether or not they'll be able to continue their winning streaks as they shed their rookie status and become regulars on the competition circuit, however, remains to be seen. Hirano, for example, finished second behind White in Aspen last year, then ended the season with the TTR World Snowboard Tour Halfpipe Champion title and become an overnight snowboard star in Japan.
This season he hasn't made a podium since August. On Thursday he pulled out of the X Games due to a sprained ankle. He won't compete again until Sochi.
We came in just wanting, more than anything, to have fun.Taylor Gold
"My thing with these young kids is, there are three things that you have to go through at a young age: injuries, parties and girls," says Vito, who, at the age of 25, is now considered a pipe veteran. "So many snowboarders who came up with [Lago and I] in the USSA, just fell off. ... Ayumu is an amazing rider, but he hasn't gone through those trials yet."
Hirano may have already endured the harshest trial of all. After his stunning second-place finish behind White last year, the media reaction was swift. Before Hirano had even left the X Games, he'd been branded as "The Next Shaun White."
"It was a big change after Aspen. He is a lot more famous now," said Kosuke Shinozaki, the Japan team manager for Hirano's sponsor Burton, in an interview with XGames.com this August.
"Shaun is still the best and the strongest rider in the world. That's why it's trouble for me for everybody to expect me to be the next Shaun White," added Hirano in the same interview. "I feel a lot of pressure."
"In riding you always have highs and lows," says Gold, when asked why he thinks Hirano has been mostly absent from the podium this season. "It's easy to get caught up in results, so maybe he's struggling mentally. Maybe he's just in a temporary low. He's still by far the best transition rider, including Shaun. And it's scary because he's so young."
What happens this week is anybody's game. Maybe the rookies with absolutely nothing to lose will step up and impress. Maybe the veterans like Vito and Lago, who no longer have Olympic pressure riding on their performances, will show those rookies what it takes to win gold.
One thing is certain: When young riders like Kim, Ferguson and Gold drop into their runs, the future of halfpipe will be on display for the world to see.
Watch Men's Snowboard SuperPipe elims on Thursday from 7:30-9 p.m. ET on ESPN3, or from 9-11 p.m. on ESPN. Women's SuperPipe finals go down Sunday from 8:30-9 p.m. ET on ESPN3.