Taking part in his first-ever Winter Olympics four years ago, Yuto Totsuka was seen as a dark horse for a medal in the halfpipe competition. Things were looking pretty good until the second round of the final. Attempting a big-air trick, he then bounded off the lip and came crashing down the pipe face first. Television commentators described it as one of the worst falls they’d ever seen.

“I remember the approach and after that just dropping,” Totsuka tells TW. “I can vaguely recall staff members running over. The next time I opened my eyes, my parents and coaches were in front of me in the first aid room. I think I was out for around 20-30 minutes and my butt was aching.”

An Invaluable Experience

Despite the dramatic fall, Totsuka, who was just 16 at the time, was pleased he had the opportunity to compete at the PyeongChang Games.

“It was an invaluable experience,” he says. “To go from watching this huge event to suddenly being in the middle of the action was very nerve-wracking. I spoke to my sponsors and our aim was to go for the Beijing Games. That changed after I won the World Cup in my first appearance. In terms of pressure, though, the Olympics is on a different level. To see all those faces when I was about to start was overwhelming. To have felt that tension was important for me moving forward.”

Totsuka was just three when his parents first took him snowboarding. He doesn’t remember it, but has seen photographic evidence of the occasion. Though he tried other sports including soccer, swimming, gymnastics and ice hockey, he was always happiest when on his board. And by the time he was nine, the Yokohama-native was already riding the halfpipe.

Influenced by the skills of former Japanese snowboarder Maki Mitsui (who later became his coach), the youngster continued to astound with his variety of tricks. He missed out on an entire season due to a broken arm at 12, yet was soon ready to challenge the country’s best snowboarders.

Reaching New Heights

In his third year of junior high school, Totsuka won the halfpipe competition at the All-Japan Ski Championships, finishing ahead of former world champion Ryo Aono and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Taku Hiraoka. The World Cup triumph came a year later followed by Olympic qualification. After that, he reached new heights, finishing in the top three of every major tournament he was in between 2019 and 2021.

“I’ve been able to calm my feelings since PyeongChang,” says Totsuka. “Don’t get me wrong, I still get nervous, but it’s a good kind of tension. On top of that, my technique has evolved. Watching old videos, I notice many bad habits. I’ve also worked on building up my muscles with three gym sessions a week.”

Currently the number one ranked snowboarder in the world in the halfpipe division, Totsuka enjoyed a stellar 2021. Along with his maiden World Championship triumph in March, he also picked up his first-ever gold medal in the superpipe event at the X Games in Aspen, Colorado. He edged out Australia’s Scotty James, the winner in 2019 and 2020.

Lofty Ambitions

Totsuka describes that victory as his “highlight of last year” and was particularly pleased about landing an extremely difficult cab double cork 1440. His fascinating rivalry with James continues to grow and the two men head to Beijing as the leading contenders for halfpipe gold, though compatriot Ayumu Hirano (silver medalist at the last two Games) is the current man on form. There are several others capable of challenging, including the man considered the greatest snowboarder of all time, Shaun White.

“He’s someone I’d prefer to watch than compete against,” says Totsuka. “I remember as a child at Copper Mountain asking to get a picture with someone I thought was him. I got an okay as a response but then when he took his goggles off, I realized it wasn’t him. It was so embarrassing. He’s a true star and even now, I’m sometimes afraid to speak to him.

“I see White and everyone else as genuine contenders,” adds the 20-year-old. “Truly, anyone can win gold. From Japan alone you have amazing boarders such as Hirano and Raibu Katayama. Like everyone, my aim is to top the podium, not only in Beijing but in every competition I enter in 2022.”