This time Ayumu Hirano would not be denied. Not by the judges. Not even by the greatest snowboarder in history. Instead, amid the most intense pressure and anger, the 23-year-old from Japan found the halfpipe equivalent of the holy grail.
And as Hirano stood on the podium with his gold medal there was a sense of something else too. That a torch was being passed from one generation to the next, as if by osmosis, from Shaun White to Hirano: from the goat to the new breed of bucks pushing at the boundaries like the American once did.
Without White, the Olympics might not have Hirano, or Chloe Kim, or Eileen Gu. The now 35-year-old finished his competitive career here, without a medal but with his legacy sitting above him in the medal table. The one-time teenage phenom known as the Flying Tomato, who brought the cool of the X Games to the Olympic arena and dragged the rest with him, finished fourth in his fifth Olympics.
White, the defending champion who won three Olympic titles going back to 2006 among those five appearances, called it the run of Hirano’s young life. It was that and more. The triple cork 1440 is so fiendishly difficult that, until Friday morning in Beijing, no one had ever attempted it and gone on to finish their run.
White had tried in training, in 2013, and it hospitalised him. Yet from the moment Hirano slid down the pipe and soared 5.5 metres in the air it was on. Over the next second or so, the Japanese rider then became a human gyroscope, spinning four full rotations while simultaneously inverting three times. More tricks followed and long before the judges conferred, and awarded him a score of 96.00, victory was his.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet but finally one of my childhood dreams has come true,” he said. “It wasn’t nervousness, but I had a different feeling from usual. I was ready to take the plunge and give it my all, and it was great to finish it off cleanly.”
It was some effort because at that point Hirano was in a controversial second place behind Scotty James. Wearing the red boxing gloves that have become his trademark, the Australian unleashed two double cork 1440s on his second run to score 92.50 and move into the lead.
It was James who had promised it would take something epic to win an Olympic gold medal. Hirano immediately responded with exactly that: a huge run that looked to raise the bar but was given only 91.75 by the judges. The hashtag #robbed was soon trending on Twitter, but while Hirano admitted he was angry, he was able to channel it to win gold.
As for White, he can be proud of his performance despite missing out on a medal. His best run, his second, included a front-side double cork 1440 and his signature double McTwist 1260.
But he knew he needed more, and so he upped the ante in his final run by attempting the double cork 1440 combo that won him gold in Pyeongchang. Yet his body couldn’t quite deliver and he was unable to stick a landing.
“I wish I could have landed my last run, but I was having some difficulty in my back leg for some reason,” he explained. “It was giving out on every run, I don’t know why. “Maybe it was the pressure, maybe it was just exhaustion. It was really challenging, but that’s OK, that’s it, I’m done.”
Then, as it all began to sink in, White began to cry. “Sorry you’re going to get me ugly crying here, but I’m not upset about the result,” he said.
“I would have loved to put it down. I made it happen for two runs and I couldn’t hold on for the last. It’s hard for me not to get hung up on that last run, I wanted it so badly. But you can’t always get what you want, you get what you need.”
If there was any comfort from leaving empty handed in the final competition of his career, it came from the hugs and acknowledgements from his fellow competitors, who attempted to put into words White’s influence over the past two decades.
“Like everyone else who was riding today, I look up to him as a huge idol,” said James. “When I was 15, he was just so much better than everyone else, and I feel he was probably the most dominant snowboard character in competition ever. He looks back on 20 years of riding at the highest level, and it was a huge pleasure to have him today in this competition.”
As White heard the tributes he smiled. A new career awaits, and while he is not sure what he will do next, he won’t be short of offers either.
“It’s been a journey, I’m just so happy, and thank you all from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “A lot of emotions are hitting me right now, the cheering from the crowd, some kind words from my fellow competitors at the bottom, I’m so happy.
“Snowboarding, thank you. It’s been the love of my life.”