"I didn't choose this sport," explains Chinese halfpipe sensation Yiwei Zhang. "This sport chose me."
Zhang, 21, was just 11 years old when officials from the Chinese Ski Association pulled him out of gymnastics class at his school in his hometown of Gaizhou, Liaoning.
"They wanted to build a snowboarding team for halfpipe and they just needed athletes," says Zhang. "I didn't know anything about this sport and had never tried it, but they said it didn't matter. I was given a choice to take more school time or to become a professional athlete. I was the kind of boy who wanted to try new things and see the world. I didn't think I could make the gymnastics team, so I figured I'd try snowboarding."
Despite that unlikely beginning, Zhang says he was hooked from the very first time he got on snow.
"The first time I tried snowboarding I loved it," he says. "I remember there were six or seven other people on the team that first day, but they all quit. They couldn't figure it out or couldn't see the future. I chose to stay."
The pressure from that day on was enormous says Zhang, who was expected to make it to the Sochi Olympics even before he'd figured out how to strap into his bindings.
Never mind that there were no halfpipes in China then, or that his coaches had no more idea about how to go about training for riding in them than he did.
"The goal was always clear," he says. "They said, 'This sport is an Olympic sport, and we always compete in the biggest contest in the world.' They didn't like that there was this big Olympic event that we weren't competing in."
Zhang's early training mostly consisted of studying videos of 2006 and 2010 Olympic gold medalist Shuan White.
"We didn't know anything about snowboarding, so we just watched some videos," Zhang recalls. He and his coaches paid close attention to how White dropped into the pipe, how he placed his edges, pumped the transitions, and positioned his body for each trick.
Many people in snowboarding will tell you to just be yourself and develop your own style. I know that. But if I could do a backside air just like Shaun White, I would be very happy.
He studied White's trajectory down the pipe and off each wall, how he launched into spins and spotted his landings, and when and where he grabbed his board. But while his coaches got increasingly worked up about White's biggest spins, Zhang found himself focusing on the simplest but most impressive trick in White's repertoire.
"Whenever he would do a big backside air twenty feet above the pipe," says Zhang, "I would think, 'I want to do a backside air that big, just like him.' Many people in snowboarding will tell you to just be yourself and develop your own style. I know that. But if I could do a backside air just like Shaun White, I would be very happy. I see that amplitude, and I want to feel what he's feeling."
For the last few seasons the Chinese team has been putting Zhang up in a condo in Breckenridge, Colo., where he lives and trains during the winter. He speaks English fluently, if a bit tentatively, also thanks to the Chinese team. He says he spends at least as much time in the gym as in the halfpipe, in pursuit of going bigger and bigger. He's been boosting those backside airs as high as almost anybody in the field now that he has a proper pipe to practice in -- though he admits he's still catching up to White's height. And he's made some new friends along the way.
"Yiwei goes for it," says X Games Aspen 2014 SuperPipe gold medalist Danny Davis. "I really respect that about his riding. He does not hold back. He does not save anything when he rides; he throws everything he has. I think that is great."
"Yiwei loves to ride," says Israel Maynard, managing director for Burton China. "He trains so hard with the team, but he also loves to freeride, drop in to the park and just have fun snowboarding."
Ten years ago the Chinese Olympic team set out to create a new set of competitors to contend for Olympic gold in snowboarding, as they've always done in other sports. The payoff was huge. In the lead-up to Sochi, Zhang had breakout year: He finished the 2013 FIS World Cup in second place overall, easily securing his spot on China's Olympic halfpipe team, and finished twelfth in the World Snowboard Tour halfpipe rankings. He made the SuperPipe finals in his X Games debut in Aspen in January, finishing seventh. And he made finals in Sochi, finishing sixth.
The side effect of the team's effort, however, is they accidentally turned Zhang into a snowboarder along the way.
"These last few years living in Colorado I've learned to love riding in powder," he says. "Everybody loves powder, but I came late to it. Now I get so excited when I see the big powder coming that it's hard to concentrate on training in the pipe."
Still, Zhang says halfpipe competition will remain a priority. He wants to do better at X Games and other big events next year, and says the 2018 Winter Games are already on his mind.
"It's a pretty long time to South Korea and in four years almost anything can happen," he says. "I'll keep training and doing competitions and having fun with all these awesome riders I've been meeting for as long as I can."
Besides White, Zhang says his favorites include Danny Davis, Scotty Lago, and Ben Ferguson. He's studying each of them now, too, and aims to emulate Davis' switch method, Lago's tweaked-out stalefish grabs, and Ferguson's frontside double crippler.
"I love to compete with those guys, but the main thing I've learned from them is that snowboarding is really just about having fun and doing whatever you want to do, pretty much," he says. "Those guys are awesome because they just do their thing. Winning the [semifinal round at the U.S. Open] gave me confidence to know that I can win against the very best riders. Then losing reminded me that sometimes you have good days and sometimes you have bad days, but it's all snowboarding and that's awesome."
It's a message he hopes to bring home to China.
"When I first started traveling for competitions I would get all kinds of questions at the airport when I left home, because people had never seen these big board bags. 'But now more and more people know what it is, and want to watch this sport. Now they want to try it."
Chinese ski areas now welcome snowboards, and are starting to build terrain parks and halfpipes. Zhang says the Chinese snowboard team has started to win some fans in China, and so has his hero.
"In interviews in China they always want to ask me about Shaun White," he says. "They want to know why is he such a big deal. I tell them, 'He is like Michael Jackson.' Then they understand."