Photo/IllutrationAyumu Hirano, a two-time snowboarding Olympic silver medalist, shows off his skills in another sport at the Japan skateboarding championship in Murakami, Niigata Prefecture, on May 12. (Takeshi Teruya)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

MURAKAMI, Niigata Prefecture--Ayumu Hirano, the men’s halfpipe silver medalist for two consecutive Winter Olympics, moved closer to competing in the Summer Games by capturing the men’s park title at the Japan skateboarding championship here.

“I feel I have stepped forward toward entry at the Tokyo Olympics,” the 20-year-old said after fighting through injury at the competition on May. 12.

It was his first appearance at the national skateboarding championship. And with the victory, he earned sponsorship from the Japan Roller Sports Federation (JRSF).

The JRSF will send Hirano to a series of international competitions where he can earn “Olympic points” to represent Japan at the Tokyo Games next year, when skateboarding debuts as an Olympic sport.

The JRSF sponsors 12 skateboarders. Failure to win sponsorship would have put a serious dent in Hirano’s Olympic hopes.

The final stage of the men’s park championship in Murakami involved the top eight qualifiers each performing three 40-second programs.

Hirano rode at fast speeds and gained good air on his jumps, including the “540” trick of one-and-a-half twists, in the first round. That put pressure on the other entrants, including Kensuke Sasaoka, who had won the Asian Games last summer.

In the end, no one could match Hirano’s 65.7 points.

Hirano had twisted his left wrist just before the event. Despite the pain, he managed to hold onto his board while doing his aerial tricks.

“I just had to do it, and I did it because of the adrenaline,” he said.

A year ago, rumors were swirling that Hirano wanted to become a two-way athlete by pursuing skateboarding.

His plan was met with skepticism.

“Skateboarding and snowboarding are totally different,” was a common comment.

“He might have a natural gift. But skateboarding is not easy. He will not able to enter the Olympics without practicing,” one insider said.

Hirano said he was motivated in part by the words of doubt.

When Hirano in November 2018 made his Olympic skateboarding plan official, he said: “Although they both involve riding a board sideways, the two sports are as different as baseball and basketball. I need to work on this with the intention to take 100 steps from zero.”

Almost six months later, after winning the men’s park title in his hometown of Murakami, he said, “I never imagined I would be able to reach this milestone.”

Takashi Nishikawa, manager of Japan’s national skateboarding team, said of Hirano, “He had been using a snowboarding style, but now it is becoming a skateboarding style. His potential is as high as we thought.”

Daisuke Hayakawa, the national team’s coach, emphasized his strong points.

“Hirano’s aerial performance is just great,” Hayakawa said. “He has a good technique of landing after jumping.”

Using legs made strong from years of snowboarding, Hirano jumped high and performed rotating tricks at the national competition, wowing the audience and overwhelming his rivals.

However, Hayakawa also noted some of Hirano’s weak points, such as his aerial grabs, in which the skater holds the board while airborne.

“Improvements to his entire performance programs will not happen if he only (hones) his jumping skills,” the coach said. “It will be more balanced if he adopts more (sliding moves), such as a lip slide trick.”

Hirano is trying to enter the men’s park category at the Olympics, a category in which Japan lags behind other countries. Yuto Horigome was the top Japanese finisher at the world championships last year, placing sixth.

“Japan has a middle ranking in the world and would not qualify at this point,” Hayakawa said.

When asked about where he feels he is in terms of perfecting his techniques, Hirano said, “Around 40 percent.”

He added: “From the viewpoints of technique or sense, I have not reached the required level that can compete against other countries. I need to boost my skills even more.”

Only the top 16 Olympic point-getters plus the top three competitors at the world championships can compete in the men’s park at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan is automatically granted one slot as the host country. Hirano will likely enter the event if he can narrow the gap between Japan and other countries.

(This article was written by Takeshi Teruya and Yu Iwasa.)