The Contender: Ayumu Hirano
Last January a shy, confident 14-year-old from Japan announced his arrival on the competition scene by blasting 19-foot airs out of the X Games Aspen SuperPipe, landing on the podium behind Shaun White. With that one performance, Ayumu Hirano became an overnight sensation, and he has since been hailed as White's biggest competition for both X Games and Winter Olympic gold.
Hirano was unable to prove that his Aspen performance was not a fluke when a flu virus kept him from competing at X Games Tignes. But as the winter started in the Southern Hemisphere in August, bringing with it the first contests of the 2013-14 season, Hirano was there, winning back-to-back first-place podium spots at the New Zealand Winter Games World Cup and the Burton High Fives.
Speaking through a translator in a quiet apartment in Wanaka, New Zealand, following his World Cup win, Hirano explained that finishing on the podium at his first X Games was an experience that has changed everything for him -- going from a halfpipe nobody to someone to watch out for in every competition he enters.
"I didn't think I'd get a podium [in Aspen] last year, so I'm very happy," said Hirano. "X Games is the biggest event in the year, so after X Games every competition is different. However, there are now always people looking out for me."
And it's not just fellow competitors and the entire snowboard industry keeping an eye out for Hirano now. When he arrived back home in Japan after Aspen, his time was immediately taken up with multiple media interviews and photo shoots. He even made an appearance with his local governor.
"It was a big change after Aspen. He is a lot more famous now, especially locally," explained Burton Japan team manager Kosuke Shinozaki.
The teenager is working on adding a Cab double cork to his pipe run; he has already landed a few successfully. With talent and dedication that is rare in someone so young, it's no wonder so many comparisons have been drawn between him and a certain other halfpipe prodigy.
But Hirano has no interest in being called "the next Shaun White."
"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," said Hirano. "I feel a lot of pressure."
That pressure figures to be a constant for Hirano in the buildup to Sochi. Shinozaki confirms the 14-year-old will indeed be eligible for Olympic selection once he turns 15 later this year. And with a first-place finish at his World Cup debut, Hirano has only the Japanese team selectors left to impress.
With seven strong riders in contention to fill the country's four open halfpipe slots for the Sochi Olympics, and a few more World Cup events to select from, the Ski Association of Japan has some tough decisions to make. There is little doubt, however, that young Hirano will sit at the top of the list to represent Japan in February.
He may look calm and collected, but the teenager cannot wait for his shot.