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Shaun White battles young generation in Olympic halfpipe

Shaun White remembers the first time he met Japanese snowboarder Ayumu Hirano.

“The media was grilling him about, are you going to be the next Shaun White?” White said. “They were like: Are you going to beat Shaun at this event? He’s like 13, sitting with his parents translating for him. He’s like, ‘Uh, I don’t know. I don’t think so.’”

That was six years ago, and now that shy 13-year-old from Murakami, Japan, has become the first human to land back-to-back 1440s (four revolutions) in a halfpipe competition and a genuine contender in the Pyeongchang Olympic event that opens Monday night (San Diego time) at Phoenix Snow Park.

So is Australian Scotty James, who is 23. And fellow Americans Ben Ferguson, Chase Josey and Jake Pates, who are 23, 22 and 20. And Japan’s Yuto Totsuka, who is 16.

White is 31.

It adds yet another intriguing layer to what promises to be an epic showdown, the likes of which we haven’t seen in halfpipe’s 20-year Olympic history. There is the technical angle, with guys not just landing 1440s now but multiple 1440s. And there is the nostalgia angle, a new generation of precocious riders trying to knock off the king from Carlsbad.

White skipped the X Games late last month in Aspen, Colo., after getting sick, instead watching the young ’nes rip off one incredible run after another on the ESPN telecast.

“It was great to watch those guys’ runs and see their best,” said White, who won gold in 2006 and 2010 before slipping to fourth in 2014. “Now I get to throw my best.”

“It really is going to be a showdown,” James said.

A month ago, James was considered the Olympic favorite. After a growth spurt screwed with his timing and coordination four years ago in Sochi, where he was 21st, he had a breakout year last season – winning the test event on the Pyeongchang pipe and then the World Championships.

He wears red boxing gloves when he’s snowboarding, a motivational tool he says reminds him he’s in a fight. (Or as he puts it: “You’re like, ‘I’m Scotty James and I’m here to play.’”) His signature move is the insanely difficult switch backside 1260.

But then came the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix at Snowmass, Colo., last month. White had fallen on his first two runs of the finals, and James had posted a 96.5-point score that most figured would be enough to win. There was one competitor left, White, and he threw down what many regard as the greatest run of all time – opening with a double cork 1440 and closing with a pair of 1260s.

His score: a perfect 100.

Then came Hirano at the X Games. His never-seen-before pair of 1440s got him a 99, and James finished second again.

James has been critical of the judges, hinting they’re undervaluing his switch backside 1260 that many in the sport consider more challenging than a straight-forward 1440 because of its blind entry and unorthodox rotational direction.

“I put my life on the line every day snowboarding and I work so hard,” said James, Australia’s flagbearer at Opening Ceremony, “and some silly people behind the desk dictate some score which is really frustrating for me sometimes. Honestly, I feel like there have been times when I feel like I have been a bit shafted.”

That is open to debate. The danger part is not.

Not competing in Pyeongchang is defending gold medalist champion Iouri Podladtchikov – iPod for short – after a gnarly crash at X Games knocked him unconscious. The Swiss rider travelled to Pyeongchang and tried training before doctors waved him off.

“When I received this diagnosis, it was clear to me that I had sustained a serious and dangerous injury and that participating in the Olympic Games would pose a great risk to my health,” Podladtchikov, 29, said in a statement. “I can say for sure that starting and participating in the Olympic Games is in no way safe and responsible.”

That leaves White on his own to battle the youngsters.

The obvious question: Is what he did at Snowmass enough?

It might not be, given the accelerated, before-our-eyes development of the sport. White admitted as much last week when he was asked if we have seen his best.

“I don’t think we’ve seen my best run. Actually, I know we haven’t,” White said, adding coyly: “I definitely have a couple things in mind that I’ve been working on and want to iron out.”

His coach, Encinitas resident J.J. Thomas, confirmed that “if he’s feeling good and the pipe is riding well, I think it’s very likely you’ll see a new combination that no one’s ever seen from him before.”

Back-to-back 1440s, perhaps, to match Ayumu?

The good news is that the pipe should be riding well, unlike four years ago in Sochi. If there is a great unknown about White’s career, it is whether he finished fourth in Sochi because he was losing his fastball or because the pipe was too mushy from warm weather.

Pyeongchang doesn’t have that problem. Temperatures in the mountains have consistently been in the teens, which keeps the pipe hard and fast.

Said Encinitas resident and NBC snowboard analyst Todd Richards: “Conditions are perfect. They’ll basically have a skate park to work with.”

The contenders

Scotty James, Australia

Age: 23

World ranking: 1

Olympics: 2010 (21st), 2014 (21st).

Outlook: He has been the most consistent rider over the last two seasons and deservedly holds the No. 1 ranking. But there’s enormous pressure on him from a country that rarely wins Olympic gold medals, and White and Hirano have both beat him in the past month. It may come down to how much the judges value his signature move, a switch backside 1260 (3½ revolutions), compared to the less complex 1440s (four revolutions) of White and Ayumu.

Shaun White, USA

Age: 31.

World ranking: 2.

Olympics: 2006 (gold), 2010 (gold), 2014 (fourth)

Outlook: He returned to the sport for one more Olympic go-round after the disappointment of Sochi, where he withdrew from slopestyle and finished off the podium in halfpipe. Beside his power and speed, his greatest asset may be performing in the clutch. That was never more evident that on the final run of the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix last month, when he scored a perfect 100. Said White: “It was honestly one of the highlights of my career, definitely in the top five.”

Ayumu Hirano, Japan

Age: 19

World ranking: 3

Olympics: 2014 (silver)

Outlook: In Sochi, he became the youngest Olympian to win a medal in a snow event at 15 years, 2 months. At the X Games last month, he become the first person to land back-to-back 1440s in competition. Many consider him the future of the sport, and that future may be now.

Ben Ferguson, USA

Age: 23

World ranking: 4

Olympics: first

Outlook: He missed qualifying for the 2014 Olympics by one spot, but left no doubt four years later with podium finishes at the first two U.S. qualifiers. He grew up in Bend, Ore., and his younger brother Gabe is also a competitive snowboarder. He won the halfpipe at the 2012 Youth Olympic Games and was third behind Hirano and James at X Games last month.

Yuto Totsuka, Japan

Age: 16

World ranking: 5

Olympics: first

Outlook: The latest of a generation of star Japanese riders. He’s been on a board since age 3, and considers Hirano, just thee years his elder, one of his idols. He is first this season in the World Cup points standings. He finished third behind White and James in the historic U.S. Grand Prix last month.

mark.zeigler@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @sdutzeigler

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