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Snowboarding star Ayumu Hirano aims to win gold in Pyeongchang

Sochi Olympic snowboard halfpipe silver medalist Ayumu Hirano is determined to win gold this time.

Once nicknamed the "boy genius," Hirano, now 19, goes into the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics being the youngest Japanese athlete to win a Winter Games medal and also the youngest snowboarder ever to win an Olympic medal -- honors he achieved in Sochi at the age of 15.

"I want to pull off a spectacular performance worthy of winning gold," Hirano says with a determined expression -- no longer giving the innocent young boy image he once held.

Ahead of the games, the boarder's 46-year-old father, Hidenori, who has been a rock during his son's meteoric rise, commented, "In 2014, Ayumu was suddenly selected for the Japan national team a month before the tournament. This time we will go to the Winter Olympics making sure he wins gold."

Ayumu knows it won't be easy clinching gold, but he is determined to succeed. "Of course there is pressure, but I want to give a convincing performance," he says. A key difference this time, compared to the Sochi Games, is that he goes into the tournament as the favorite to win gold.

It was at the age of 4 that the star became a "rider." Inspired by his brother Eiju, who is three years older than him and aims to represent Japan in the newly added event of skateboarding at the Tokyo 2020 Games, Ayumu took up both snowboarding and skateboarding.

Ayumu would practice at the skate park run by his father in his home city of Murakami in Niigata Prefecture, and in winter, his father would drive him to ski resorts in nearby Yamagata Prefecture.

Ayumu Hirano, of Japan, jumps during the men's halfpipe qualifying at Phoenix Snow Park at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

It wasn't long until his talent was recognized, and when he was in the fourth year of elementary school, he signed a contract with snowboard maker Burton Snowboards. In 2013, at the age of 14, he finished second in the Winter X Games, and won the same tournament in 2016, two years after Sochi.

However, at the U.S. Open in March 2017, less than a year before the Pyeongchang Games, Ayumu suffered ligament damage in his left knee due to an awkward landing. The injury meant he was unable to do anything for a while, and he was forced to rest.

His father was a tower of strength during this time, and helped Ayumu remain positive. "Let's regard this as a necessary evil," Hidenori told him during the youngster's period of rehabilitation in Murakami.

It was a precious experience for Ayumu, as it enabled him to look at himself in a new light. "I became able to face challenges with a positive frame of mind," the snowboarder explains, as he re-examined his approach toward diet, physical condition and snowboarding style.

About six months after suffering the injury, Ayumu finished second in the opening World Cup contest. In the following round in December, he managed to beat two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, from the U.S., and took first place. "My sliding technique has improved and I'm managing to maintain a good flow," Ayumu says. He also came first at the Winter X Games in January.

In the snowboard halfpipe, new and more complex tricks are continuing to emerge. Ayumu hopes to pull off a double-vertical turn and quadruple-horizontal turn combination called the "frontside double-cork 1440," and follow it with a "cab double-cork 1440," at the Pyeongchang Games, in a determined attempt to dazzle the world.

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