Olivero: Totsuka’s superpipe supremacy is a testament to Japan’s halfpipe might | SummitDaily.com

Olivero: Totsuka’s superpipe supremacy is a testament to Japan’s halfpipe might

X Games gold medalist Yuto Totsuka finishes his final run during the men’s superpipe finals during X Games Aspen at Buttermilk Ski Area on Sunday, Jan. 31.
Photo by Kelsey Brunner / The Aspen Times

One year ago — the last time a pro snowboard and freeski competition took place in Summit County — was the last time Yuto Totsuka lost one of the sport’s preeminent halfpipe contests.

In February 2020, as the mob at the bottom of the Woodward Copper superpipe ushered Australian star Scotty James here and there, Totsuka began answering media questions about his performance. He was herded to what had become his perpetual spot: standing on the podium in second place. The then 18-year-old from Yokohama, Japan — to the right and a step down from James’ lofty perch — conjured an ever-so-slight smile before disappearing into the Dew Tour crowd.

Where did Totsuka go from there? To put in whatever final, necessary mental and physical work he needed to knock off James. After three consecutive victories over James, that’s now Totsuka’s perch just one year away from the scheduled start of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

On Sunday night in Aspen, in his customary short-and-sweet style, Totsuka described winning his first X Games Aspen superpipe gold medal as a “dream come true.” It became true, though, not because he’s a dreamer, but because he’s a worker.

American snowboard veteran Louie Vito hosted a live commentary from his living room Sunday night on his Instagram account, providing expert insight into the superpipe competition that rivaled X Games’ official televised ESPN broadcast. Once the questions from Vito’s viewers shifted from why American legend Shaun White wasn’t competing — White dropped due to tweaking his knee in practice — Vito got to the most pressing and pertinent question of the day: How has Yuto overtaken James immediately after James won 11 consecutive superpipe competitions?

Vito didn’t mince words: It’s because of the fundamentals and attention to detail Totsuka and the other Japanese professionals have. Vito spoke about a scene many Summit County locals have witnessed at Copper Mountain Resort in recent years: Japanese riders and coaches poring over practice and competition film. They treat the halfpipe like Bill Belichick or Nick Saban treat a football game, dissecting the footage for even tiny takeaways that could improve their performance.

That’s not to say James and the Americans and their respective coaches don’t also look at film — these are the best of the best, after all — but Vito made it clear the Japanese team is on another level when it comes to film study and fundamentals. Vito added that the masterful, picture-perfect edging through the pipe — which Totsuka and other Japanese riders use to fuel their soaring, sharp pipe runs — comes thanks to the obsessive, always-on-point upbringing young Japanese talents like Totsuka receive when they are progressing up the ranks.

“Plug and play” was the term Vito used to describe the Japanese team’s machine-like depth in talent, an homage to substitutions in football for the rabid Ohio State University football fan.

Vito was candid that many American riders like himself learned how to snowboard recreationally at first, likely developing some not-so-ideal habits along the way. That’s not a good or bad thing, Vito said. It just is what it is. It hasn’t stopped many Americans from achieving success, including Vito, who represented the U.S. at the 2010 Vancouncer Winter Olympics and has won several Grand Prix, Dew Tour and X Games gold medals.

Now, with King Yuto wearing the halfpipe belt, it’s James’ turn to catch up. Between now and the Olympics opening ceremony Feb. 4, 2022, it remains to be seen if White and Japanese star Ayumu Hirano will throw their names into the halfpipe scene where Totsuka and James reign supreme. Whatever happens, James is now unquestionably in the same boots Totsuka was in a year ago at Copper Mountain. As long as James stays healthy, he’ll give Totsuka everything he can handle in the one spot neither has won a gold: an Olympic superpipe.

Antonio Olivero is the Summit Daily News sports and outdoors editor.

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