There can be few better guides to the ins and out of snowboarding than Scott James. The 23-year-old will become a three-time Olympian when he arrives in PyeongChang, and he is the two-time reigning International Ski Federation (FIS) halfpipe world champion.
“Obviously I am a big fan of the adrenaline,” James said of the sport he has been devoted to since he picked up a board for the first time aged three. “It’s hard to sum up. I love the atmosphere, the excitement of it, getting that opportunity to show what you have got.”
James has been in outstanding form recently, winning World Championship gold in Sierra Nevada, Spain last year and taking silver at the X Games in January this year. But in the past month, both of his major rivals, the USA’s Shaun White and Japanese rider Ayumu Hirano, have laid down some mighty impressive markers.
First White, the two-time Olympic champion, produced an immaculate run at the FIS World Cup event in Aspen claiming a perfect 100, before Ayumu spun and flipped his way to a 99 at the X Games, pushing James into second position.
“It’s going to be damn close, a serious battle (at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games),” the Australian said. “Ayumu and Shaun are my main two rivals. Us three across the board, the amplitude, the technicality, we are pretty on par. Usually our execution is pretty flawless as well.”
Obviously I am a big fan of the adrenaline. I love the atmosphere, the excitement of it, getting that opportunity to show what you have got.Scott James
The men’s and ladies’ halfpipe are two of the 10 snowboard events at PyeongChang 2018, with judges scoring the athletes over two rides, rewarding height, rotations, technique and degree of difficulty.
“I get nerves rushing through from head to toe,” James said. “If I wasn’t scared or a bit fearful I wouldn’t do this sport; it would mean I was a bit switched off. With fear comes complete, utter focus, which is what you need. I have learned to embrace it.
“It is such a technical sport, there are very fine details in every trick and in all the execution.”
Halfpipe’s key skills and top tips
James, who won halfpipe World Championship gold in 2015 and 2017, has been boarding since he was three. You may not be surprised by his most pressing piece of advice for wannabe halfpipers.
“You have got to be in there all the time, whether you are working on tricks or just getting the miles in, the laps through the pipes,” he said. “You also need a lot of air awareness, technical skills and the will to learn.”
It is an impressive-sounding mantra from the one-time child prodigy who discovered a new-found level of dedication after the disappointment of finishing 21st and 16th in the halfpipe and slopestyle respectively at the Sochi 2014 Games.
Although James will not be repeating the halfpipe-slopestyle double in PyeongChang, the Australian loves performing on the wild courses, which include rails, tables, boxes, walls and jump pads.
“The jumps are always really fun; there is that sense of freedom when you are in the air, which is really cool,” he said. “You’ve got to be technical and creative, mix up your grabs. You’ve got to know where you are in the air all the time and have great board control.”
Riders are marked on similar criteria to the halfpipe competitors, with two rounds to impress. The courses are frighteningly impressive.
“Watching it, I don’t envy them now,” James laughed. “At any opportunity they will add an extra 360 or 180 or flip.”
A new event for PyeongChang 2018, Big Air involves exactly what you would expect.
“It’s amazing to watch, you get lots of spinning, flipping, tricks. The other night I was watching and Marcus Kleveland (NOR) got third place with a quad cork – it’s just like, how does that even make any sense?” James asked with a grin.
When asked if it might be a natural progression for an adrenaline-obsessed halfpipe rider to progress on to Big Air, James had an interesting answer.
“Funnily enough, I said that to my coach (the possibility of taking up Big Air) and he smacked me over the head, so that idea was shut down pretty quick,” James laughed.
Similar to ski cross, teams of four to six athletes race down a course featuring banks, rollers, spines and jumps, with the fastest progressing through the rounds.
“It’s awesome,” James said. “It gets pretty gnarly; you’ve got some jumps, some rhythm sections, tight turns; it’s very exciting, a really good spectator sport.”
Again, there is plenty in there to tempt James to potentially get involved.
“Maybe one day I will lace those boots up again,” said the man who was a multiple age-group champion in Australia. “Maybe I will make a comeback.”
Parallel Slalom brings a touch of old-school Alpine elegance and simplicity to the high-flying world of snowboarding. Boarders race side-by-side, swapping lanes after the first leg, with the one with the fastest combined time progressing.
“It’s pretty rad to watch,” James said.
It sounds almost enough to encourage the notion that the multi-talented boarder will turn his focus to this discipline for the Beijing 2022 Games – if, that is, he doesn’t have enough on his plate already.