After growing pains, Scotty James now a top threat for halfpipe gold
When men's snowboard halfpipe kicks off at the Olympics, several titans of the sport will be locked in a battle for gold. Among them is Shaun White, who is attempting to reclaim his Olympic title after losing it to Iouri Podladtchikov four years ago.
But one of White's biggest challenges will come from a 23-year-old snowboarder from Australia named Scotty James.
And that Aussie could have a secret weapon for PyeongChang.
After a number of years on the contest circuit, James hit his breakout last season. He's currently World Snowboarding's No. 1 ranked halfpipe rider, and over the last 13 months, he has beaten White head-to-head at several contests.
It almost didn't come to this point for James, who lost — and then rediscovered — his passion for snowboarding since he first competed at the Olympics eight years ago.
Despite finishing in 21st place and riding with a fractured wrist at the Vancouver Games in 2010, the first Olympic experience was a positive one for James, who was just 15 years old at the time.
After crashing on his first run of the qualifiers, James returned to the top of the halfpipe. Before he dropped in for his second run, he remembers looking down at the grandstands and spotting his family cheering him on with chants of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!"
"That's a really cool memory for me to dwell on, and definitely my most fond memory of the Olympics so far," James said.
Things weren't quite as enjoyable four years later at the Sochi Games. The main culprit: an unexpected growth spurt.
Right after the 2010 Olympics, James' body had begun to grow at a quick pace. His boot size, his board length, his binding size — all constantly changing.
"It was really hard to, each week, keep developing as a rider with changing equipment all the time," James said. "It was pretty frustrating just dealing with things like that."
As a result, James' riding began to suffer as he completely lost his sense of air awareness.
It became such a frustration that he even considered quitting snowboarding altogether at one point.
Nevertheless, James returned to the Olympics in 2014. He competed in two events but did not do well in either, finishing 16th in slopestyle and 21st again in halfpipe.
"I was kind of over finishing fifth and sixth at every competition."
After that experience, James went back to the basics. He started working with a new coach, focused exclusively on halfpipe, and relearned some of the fundamentals. He figured out how to use his 6-foot-2 frame to generate amplitude that rivaled many of the sport's top riders.
By 2015, James says that he finally started feeling good about snowboarding again. He made his first X Games podium that next winter and rekindled his love for the sport.
But James still wanted more.
"I was kind of over finishing fifth and sixth at every competition," he said.
Entering the 2016/17 winter season, James was more focused, and he began to work harder than ever.
"I made big changes in my life — personally, as an athlete, as a snowboarder, things like that," he said. "That kind of all really came together for me, and I just really started to work a lot harder. I really wanted it."
The dividends, which quickly became apparent, were massive. James earned victories at X Games, the Olympic test event and the world championships, and he was on the podium at several other contests.
At the five events in which they both competed, James and White each had two victories, though some of White's early-season struggles could be attributed in part to offseason ankle surgery.
Right now James, White and Ayumu Hirano — the 2014 Olympic silver medalist from Japan — form the "Big Three" of halfpipe snowboarding. Any one of them could be standing atop the podium in PyeongChang if they land their best run.
With the Olympics approaching, all three of those gold medal contenders have upped their riding with progressive new runs.
A few weeks ago at X Games, Hirano earned the victory after becoming the first rider to land back-to-back 1440s. The judges gave him what essentially equated to a perfect score, a sign that they most likely considered it to be the greatest run ever done in snowboard halfpipe history.
And though White has not yet attempted back-to-back 1440s in a contest, his revamped run is very similar to Hirano's and is structured in a way that he theoretically would have the option to try that combo.
Meanwhile, James has been pushing forward with his own path of progression. In particular, one trick has become his calling card: the switch backside double cork 1260.
"Switch backside" refers to the direction that the rider rotates when starting the trick, and it's a very difficult spin to execute. So difficult, in fact, that many halfpipe riders do not even put a single switch backside trick into their runs.
Therefore the switch backside 1260 — which no one besides James has ever landed in a halfpipe competition — is arguably more technical than any variation of the 1440 that has been done thus far by anyone, including White and Hirano.
"It definitely carries so much more weight [when a trick is done with a switch backside rotation]," Tom Zikas, the head snowboard judge for X Games and other major contests, explained. "Switch backside in a halfpipe is a really awkward spin, and it's awkward to do with lesser rotations, let alone a 1260."
And it's not just the tricks that make James a contender. He's also been putting a lot of attention into his overall execution and amplitude.
"I think a big thing that people forget other than the tricks is the execution — how well you do it, how big you go," he said. "It's not all about the Hail Mary one trick that gets the job done. I think it's important to stay consistent and go big."
So far this season, James' runs have been scoring very well, and he has a streak of three consecutive runner-up finishes to show for it. But no victories yet.
However, James might still have an ace in the hole.
When NBC Olympics spoke to him In December, James revealed that once he put down the run he ultimately did at X Games, he already had a "next step" in mind.
"There's another trick that I have worked on and I will do at some point," he said. "I'm just waiting for the right time."
Whether or not the Olympics prove to be the "right time" for that mystery trick remains to be seen.
One thing's for sure, though: Now that his growing pains are a distant memory, the rapidly progressing Scotty James will be must-see viewing when he drops into the PyeongChang halfpipe.
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