After winning silver at back-to-back Olympics, Ayumu Hirano is finally a gold medalist.
The 23-year-old snowboarding star from Japan landed triple corks on all three of his runs, but it was his final one — the final run of the contest — that knocked Australia's Scotty James off the top of the leaderboard in the men's snowboard halfpipe final.
The triple cork has been the most-talked-about trick in snowboarding, as it was widely assumed that it would be necessary to win gold at the Olympics. Ayumu was the only rider who had landed the trick in a competition, but entering the day, he had never executed a full contest run that included the trick. Two of his teammates, Ruka Hirano and Yuto Totsuka, have landed it while training but never in a competition, and it's rumored that other riders have been working on the triple cork as well.
Proving that he had the trick on lock, Ayumu was the only rider to even attempt the triple cork. He landed it on Run 1 but fell on one of his other tricks. Then he bounced back on Run 2, going huge on every hit and landing a full run that included the triple cork for the first time in his career.
It wasn't enough for the first place though, as the judges placed Ayumu second behind James, who had previously landed an extremely difficult run of his own which featured a switch backside 1260 and cab double cork 1440 on the first two hits.
That left Ayumu with one last attempt to break his streak of his silver medals. With everything on the line, he dropped in and landed an even cleaner version of his previous run, which also included a pair of 1440s and a pair of 1260s in addition to the triple cork, and this time the judges gave him a massive score, a 96.00, to push him into the lead and onto the top step of the podium.
"I did what I wanted to do right at the end," Ayumu said afterwards. "I wasn't able to accept the second run's score but I managed to express my anger well at the end."
It's the first Olympic gold medal for Ayumu, who earned silver at each of the last two Olympics. James ended up with the silver medal this time, an upgrade from the bronze he won four years ago.
"It hasn't sunk in yet but finally one of my childhood dreams has come true," Ayumu said.
Aside from triple corks, one other topic of conversation dominated this event: the man who beat Ayumu and James at the last Olympics, Shaun White.
The snowboard legend has already announced that these will be his final Olympics, which added to the hype around the event. After landing a first run that was just a bit sketchy, White cleaned things up on Run 2 and briefly moved into medal contention. But after James and Ayumu landed huge runs of their own, White was bumped down to fourth entering the final run of the contest.
White opted to improve upon his run by attempting back-to-back double cork 1440s, but fell on the second hit and was unable to better his score. He ended up just off the podium in fourth place, with Switzerland's Jan Scherrer securing the bronze medal on the strength of a very technical second run.
"To get this bonus round, to be here, see these young guys competing, it's been such an enjoyable process and I'm truly thankful to be here and still competing and even getting fourth," White said. "I'm proud of it."
Although White's retiring, his influence in the sport still looms large. After all, he was a major influence for many of the athletes that he now competes against.
“Everyone else who was riding today grew up looking up to him as a huge idol," Scherrer said after the event. "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.”
Despite talk of Japanese riders possibly sweeping the podium, Ayumu was the only one who finished in the top eight, though his younger brother, Kaishu Hirano, commanded attention by blasting some of the day's biggest airs out of the pipe. Kaishu's third and final run featured an opening hit that took him nearly 25 feet out of the pipe.
Other standouts included American Taylor Gold, who took fifth place thanks to an opening run with technical tricks like a switch McTwist and plenty of style.