PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA - U.S. snowboard great Shaun White began his bid for a third Olympic gold in convincing style, easily separating himself at the top of qualifying for the men’s halfpipe at the Pyeongchang Winter Games on Tuesday.
Among the Japanese, Ayumu Hirano, who is looking to go one better than his 2014 Sochi silver medal, booked a place in the finals with the third-best qualifying score. Raibu Katayama and Yuto Totsuka also advanced, while Sochi bronze medalist Taku Hiraoka narrowly failed to make the cut.
White led the field on his first run with 93.25 points, only to one-up himself with a near-perfect 98.50-point second run, landing a series of high-octane airs including his signature double McTwist 1260.
“I was stoked to put that (first) run down, that took the pressure and the edge off and then I started seeing everyone putting these great runs in and I figured I would step it up,” White said. “They motivated me to send it on that last one.”
The 31-year-old “Flying Tomato,” as he is known for his shock of red hair, is looking to add to his first-place finishes at the 2006 and 2010 Games to become the first snowboarder to win three Olympic gold medals in any single event.
Australian Scotty James, winner of the last two world championships in 2015 and 2017, landed back-to-back 1260s in an impressive run that put him in second with 96.75 points.
Hirano, who is gunning for Japan’s first Olympic snowboard gold, made it look easy on his second effort as he stomped all of his tricks cleanly for 95.25 points.
“I just treated it like any other run. It’s a qualifier, so I played it safe,” the 19-year-old said.
Katayama scored a solid 90.75 points to advance to Wednesday’s finals with the fifth-best score in his first Olympic event.
“I was nervous last night, but once I was about to start I was oddly relaxed,” Katayama said.
“For the finals, I’m going to worry less about how I place and more about doing my best.”
Sixteen-year-old Totsuka, whose performance early in the session was good enough for 80.00 and 10th place, said “I was stiff as a board on my first run, being the first one up and all. I chose a program I was comfortable with, so it’s to be expected that I didn’t get a higher score.”
Fighting a figurative uphill battle after losing his balance at the bottom of the pipe on the first run, Hiraoka put on a decent performance on his next visit in which he strung together three consecutive 1080s, but with 75.75 points, it was only good enough for 13th place and not sufficient to give him another shot at a medal.
With five riders scoring over 90 points, one could be forgiven for thinking the riders were performing at their maximum, yet the top three all told reporters after the event there was more to come.
“Today I did not execute fully because it is qualification. My focus has always been on the final,” Hirano said.
Both White and Hirano laid down back-to-back double cork 1440s, while James, who was Australia’s flag-bearer at Pyeongchang’s opening ceremony, has been focusing on his switch backside double cork 1260.
Earlier in the week, the Australian questioned recent judging, particularly in regard to perceptions of the two tricks and of White’s recent perfect 100.00 score achieved at the Snowmass Grand Prix.
James’ switch backside may contain less rotations than the 1440s favored by his rivals, but the Australian’s trick is arguably more technical and he is the only man in history to throw one down in competition.
“What I was saying earlier in the week was trying to differentiate between the 1440s and my switch backside and what I thought of that,” James told reporters after qualifying.
“I have talked to the judges and I am trying to be more proactive as opposed to negative.”
When asked if a perfect score was needed to claim gold on Wednesday, James replied with a rueful smile.
“I am not big on the perfect scores but if they give one out to me I will take one on the chin,” White remarked.
For White, qualifying was all about finishing first so that he gets the chance to send down the very last run in the final.
“I get my favorite spot, dropping in last,” he stated. “It is a really good luck spot so I am really lucky to have it.”