- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - A year ago, Ayumu Hirano was known as the young kid who might someday beat Shaun White.

On the best night ever for Japan on a halfpipe, Hirano did just that at the Sochi Olympics.

Using high-flying tricks, including one in which he levitated almost parallel above the halfpipe, the 15-year-old from Murakami won the Olympic silver medal Tuesday night, finishing one spot ahead of Japanese teammate Taku Hiraoka and two spots in front of White.

“This is an amazing start and I wish him the best of luck in his career,” White said. “He’s 15!”

A protege of one of Japan’s most celebrated riders, Kazu Kokobu, Hirano took Kokobu’s advice a few years ago and started training in Colorado instead of Japan, where halfpipes are harder to find.

The results started coming, and Hirano sent his biggest message at the 2013 Winter X Games, where he landed back-to-back double-flips and flew almost as high above the halfpipe as White did. He finished second, and at 14 - the same age White was when he started making it big in the sport - it appeared only a matter of time before Hirano started seriously pressing White, the Olympic champion in 2006 and 2010.

But the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics was filled with setbacks. Jumping without his usual height, Hirano finished sixth in a star-studded field at the Dew Tour, a key lead-up event to the Olympics. Then, he pulled out of the Winter X Games with a foot injury.

What would he be able to do once the Olympics rolled around?

He showed it, not once but twice, with a pair of runs in finals that were big on high-flying jumps, not so much focused on the double corks that have taken over the sport.

Not all that big a deal in his case.

Flying 15 feet (5 meters) above the halfpipe always makes a big impression on the judges. So big, in fact, that even though Hirano dragged a hand on one of his landings, he scored a 90.75 and was leading the field after the first run.

The Swiss snowboarder, Iouri Podladtchikov, bettered that score in the second round - a 94.75 that would stand up for the gold medal. But Hirano challenged again. He had two double corks, a stylish, triple-twisting jump and another off-axis trick in which he’s practically horizontal, high in the air and literally staring down at the pipe. Recognizing what a good run it was, Podladtchikov nervously covered his face with his hands while waiting for the score to come up. It was a 93.50, which ended up winning the silver.

“I did everything that was possible with my technical abilities,” Hirano said. “I watched different competitions. I know what I have to do. On different elements, I decided to win by jumping really high, and that’s a good thing.”

The 18-year-old Hiraoka is viewed as the second-best snowboarder in a country where the sport is still developing.

His reaction to walking away from the Olympics with a medal: “I was shocked. Surprised very much.”

A huge day for Japan that came a bit earlier than anyone expected.

“‘I’d like to see snowboarding develop more in Japan,’” Hiraoka said.

After Tuesday night, it almost certainly will.

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