Olympics nearing, Ayumu takes snowboarding’s next big leap

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Ayumu Hirano, of Japan, executes a trick in the snowboarding halfpipe finals, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, during the Dew Tour at Copper Mountain, Colo. (AP Photo/Hugh Carey)

COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. (AP) — The next big leap in snowboarding went down Sunday on a sun-splashed halfpipe in Colorado with a trick that set the stakes for the gold-medal race to Beijing.

Japanese snowboard star Ayumu Hirano finished fifth at the Dew Tour, but his spot in the standings hardly mattered. What did was that he became the first person to land the difficult, dangerous and once unthinkable triple-cork jump in competition.

“It’s just a game-changer because the level of halfpipe riding has gotten so crazy,” said snowboarding commentator Jonathan “DC” Oetken, who was at the bottom of the pipe Sunday.

Ayumu, the two-time Olympic silver medalist, pulled off what’s officially called a frontside triple cork 1440, a jump that involves three head-over-heels flips with a twist while grabbing the board above the 22-foot-high halfpipe.

Ayumu’s history-making jump at the top of the pipe made him wobbly in the setup to the next trick. He fell on it and didn’t finish the run, which accounted for the fifth-place finish. But there was no denying that in a sport that treasures progression over practically everything else, his jump will be the buzz of the halfpipe world as the sport makes its way to the Olympics, and probably beyond.

“This is crazy,” said Ayumu’s Japanese teammate, Yuto Totsuka, who won the contest. “I will make sure (to have it in) the next competition.”

All the top Japanese riders, including Totsuka and Sunday’s third-place finisher, Ruka Hirano, have been working on the trick in practice. Whoever lands it best, or at all, could be wearing a gold medal around their neck come Feb. 11 in the mountains above Beijing.

Is Shaun White in that mix? Hard to tell.

Though the three-time Olympic champion has worked on the trick over time, he also has abandoned it before, feeling it was too dangerous to pull off in a high-stakes contest.

White was nowhere near thinking about triple corks on Sunday. A broken binding ruined his first run and he fell on the first jump of his second. He executed back-to-back 1260-degree jumps for the first time this season, but he finished seventh.

“I was fighting an uphill battle,” White said. “I was just so happy to get a good run down.”

He heads into the last Olympic qualifying contest, next month at Mammoth Mountain, California, without the podium finish that would give him an automatic spot on the U.S. team. Even without that, he would almost certainly make the team as a coaches’ pick, but the clock is ticking on the 35-year-old who is saying this will be his final Olympic journey.

Another American, Taylor Gold, finished second thanks to the sort of stylistic run, filled with difficult grabs and spins, that makes snowboarding purists drool, even if it doesn’t include the sky-high tricks that capture the headlines.

“Those triples are hugely, hugely dangerous and risky, and to see somebody do that in an event is unreal,” Gold said.

The risks of this sport came into sharp focus in the women’s contest when America Maddie Mastro, who is expected to challenge defending Olympic champion Chloe Kim in Beijing, landed hard on the decking and skidded to the bottom. She was bleeding below her left eye and taken off the mountain by sled. Contest officials said she suffered an ankle injury.

Kim, who already had her Olympic spot wrapped up, fell on her first two runs but came up big in her final trip down the pipe to eke out a 1-point victory over Queralt Castellet of Spain.

“I’m never putting myself in that situation again. It was horrible,” Kim said of the tension of a must-have final run. “I’m so glad I was able to land.”

So was Hirano.

“I was very happy to land the triple cork in competition for the first time,” he said through an interpreter.

Whoever can pull it off in Beijing will be even happier. But in a sport that lives for progression, Hirano will always be able to say he did it first.

“Everybody would agree,” Oetken said, “that we are pushing the limits of what is possible.”

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AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed to this report.

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