As soon as the men’s Halfpipe finals concluded in PyeongChang for the 2018 Winter Olympics, claiming Shaun White as a three-time gold medalist in the event, there were sides clashing over the final decision. Calls debating who went higher, Ayumu or Shaun, or who had a cleaner run and grab flooded the internet. Albeit very entertaining at times, it is our job to help settle these debates. So we sat down with Olympic halfpipe judge Connor Manning in the lobby of the Pheonix Park Hotel just a few hundred feet away from the pipe, and got to the bottom of it. Some may call this a run-on interview, but we cover a large amount of ground to be as transparent as possible. And remember, it is still snowboarding so you can have your own opinion, but just know that when it comes down to who wins gold, Connor’s opinion matters more.
Ayumu Hirano and Shaun White congratulate each other on the podium. PHOTO: Mark Clavin
First off, let's list out your judging resume.
I guess my resume would be pretty much everything. This is my first Olympics but I've done everything from US Open, Canadian Open, European Open, LAAX Open, Dew Tour, X Games. All the big events that snowboarders watch. The ones that Red Gerard watched and wanted to win.
And for how many years?
I turned 21, tore my ACL, missed the whole season and wanted to still be on the hill so I started getting into judging more again and went to a clinic and scored really well and then all the sudden everyone was like, "We want you coming to this event and we want you coming to that event." It snowballed from there and now we're here, it's been about 10 years judging for professional high-level events.
And your snowboarding background. Where are you from?
I grew up riding in Vermont, traveled west whenever I could, but my home hills are Smugglers’ notch, Stowe and Sugarbush. East Coast, Ice Coast!
What does it mean to be a judge the Olympics?
The Olympics were always a kind of far-fetched thing, you know, an FIS (Federation International de Ski) event and stuff. I started working with FIS to be that insider snowboarders’ judge. To be here, is just such an honor and representing my country, I'm the judge from the USA. When those scores show up on the board, USA, my name is behind them and that's just really cool.
Shaun White embracing his coach, JJ Thomas, after winning his third gold medal. PHOTO: Mark Clavin
You're saying you're the snowboarders’ judge. Expand on that a bit.
I don't know, I mean, as a judge, we're really kind of focusing on where snowboarding is going in a certain respect. The riders have a lot of say in where snowboarding is going with the tricks that they're doing, what they want to do, and where they're trying to one up each other, but being here and being able to be the judge that tells them how well they did it or how well they put a run together really, I feel gives snowboarding like a leg up, I don't know.
That is why we cover your upbringing. You are raised in snowboarding.
Exactly. Every judge here really knows snowboarding and knows what to look for in snowboarding, but we really just want to see good snowboarding. It's people who can show us, overall snowboarding, the best snowboarding that they can do. Whether it comes down to the difficulty of their tricks, how big they do them, the variety of their tricks, or how well they execute them—we look at all four of those things.
Speak to the difficulty of judging the Olympic finals.
It was insane. I came out of the booth almost shaking. It was a crazy event. Ayumu rode so smooth and did some insane tricks. Scotty had one of the hardest tricks that you could see with a switch back 12 after coming around with a cab 5 and it really just came down to the amplitude and the execution of things. It was an insane contest to judge.
How many judges are there for pipe?
There are six judges with a head judge. They drop the high and low scores, and every judge here is from a different country. It was Slovenia, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Japan, and the US. And then the head judge was also a US judge but he drops his nationality and is just a FIS representative.
Shaun White celebrates moments after stepping on top of the podium. PHOTO: Mark Clavin
What are the five things you judge a pipe run on?
In pipe it's difficulty, amplitude, variety, execution and then progression. Are you doing new things? Are you trying different combinations of tricks? Are you doing things bigger than anyone has ever done them before? That type of thing. We are really looking at how all that is put together and I think that's the coolest thing about snowboarding. It's like judging art. It's not figure skating where you call your run and aerials or anything, or you call your run and say, "This is what I'm doing, deduct points from me if I don't do it perfectly." We sit down there at the bottom and we just wait and see how you put it together, how well you did it, how well you executed it. The toughest part for us is being subjective about which was the best. And there's differences and people do have differences in the booth but at the end of the day, you put your score in and let the numbers do the work and the ranking comes out.
And as far as style?
A lot of times people ask how style gets into judging and for us that really, in our judging criteria, gets into execution. If you're a rider who can execute a trick perfectly, you add your own style to it. I think back to Scotty Lago's front 9s with a nose grab, just boning the nose grab out. Scotty made the front 9 his trick. Mike Michalchuk made the Michalchuk his trick. Terje and Kazu and everyone, I mean not everyone, but Terje and Kazu made the Mctwist theirs with a chicken wing and just doing it so big and everything like that. Style to us is owning the trick that you do and executing it perfectly and knowing that you've got that trick so that you can do it in your own way and make it look really good.
Okay, and about artfully linking runs together…
I mean look at Ferg, he does the air-to-fakie and does a cab double 10 and double Crippler and for us, that's difficulty of trick and how well he executes it. When you put a run together that adds the variety, another criteria that we have, to each other, I don't know, you've got to watch it to really understand it and really understand snowboarding to know that it is snowboarding.
BEN FERG. PHOTO: Mark Clavin
We're not another sport. We're not something that is a program like figure skating. I almost look back to Danny Davis back at X Games where he, in the finals, did three different runs completely showing us that he's the fucking ultimate snowboarder. He's like, "Okay I'm gonna ride this pipe and I can do every single trick in here. If I land this one differently, I have another trick I can do to back it up and do it just as well." I think he might've won that year, the year that he did three different runs in the final and two different runs in qualifier to do it, so five different runs overall to really get into snowboarding.
That's a progression feature. That's our fifth judging criteria. It shows you snowboarding and that the rider knows how to snowboard. We don't try to judge a rider against himself ever. It's what the competition is that day and how they ride. How they ride that day and how everyone else is riding that day.
Alright so Shaun's third and final run… go for it.
Yeah. Ayumu is at the top, Shaun was in second, Scotty in third. This kid loves pressure.
Hopping around up there to get ready. Drops in front side, you know he's going to go big because he drops in from the top. Shaun hops in, massive frontside 1440 double cork with a frontside grab.
Clean grab, yeah, he gets it just outside the binding, inside the knee. People are gonna talk shit but that's a good grab. Where they might have the issues is the cab 1440. Shaun gets a grab early, releases, and every single screen shot you're going to see someone have is going to say, "Oh, he's boot grabbing." It was just a short grab. If anything, I'd call it a short grab and if you want to take that freeze frame and say it's a boot grab, you can say it's a boot grab. But he got the grab early on. He gets the grab underneath the board, inside the boot, and then lets go and gets to it. We have a magnified judges view of it and when we went back, slow-mo'ed it, and got it, he gets the grab early inside the boot and then releases, and that's him letting go of the grab. That's really the only instability you see in the run here. I hate to see boot grabs, but that was more of just an instability when Shaun went as big as he did. In my mind, it does take him down a little bit and that's why my scores weren't that much more above Ayumu—1 point actually.
Then there's the Skyhook (frontside 540 Stalefish) and the backside double Mctwist, he calls it 'The Tomahawk', but always grabs inside the binding, outside the knee.
The Skyhook. PHOTO: Mark Clavin
Talk about the Skyhook really quick.
Skyhook, one of the skate style tricks. I don't know, you see him do it when he rides vert. It's just a frontside 540 Stalefish done huge and he just pokes it out and it looks good. It's a nice break in between seeing a lot of spins to a lot of spins. Then the frontside 1260 Stalefish, the same trick you see Scotty do when he first drops in on his first run and Shaun nails it. He stomps it clean, runs right out of it and it's nice and big.
And the reason he was scored higher than Ayumu?
So the biggest thing with Shaun's run that a lot of people don't understand who were watching it on TV is that we saw this from the bottom, so we get a very good view of how big the riders are going out of the lip of the pipe. We also have a cut-off cam that follows the rider all the way down the pipe and it's just one angle. We don't get this crazy overhead cam where you can't see how high everything is and the amplitude of the rider and when it came down to things, Shaun's run was just that much bigger than Ayumu. Ayumu's first air was huge, but watch Shaun’s 1440, from the camera angle you can't really see it, but it is just so massive. So huge. As big, if not bigger, than Ayumu's backside air.
A massive backside air from Ayumu Hirano. PHOTO: Mark Clavin
Do you guys have actual proof that Shaun’s air is bigger?
So the guys in the pipe were wearing an anklet type contraption, like if you were to get out of jail and be on house arrest, but they had them on both of their legs. Omega had a feed that said how high these guys were going, so we had the average amplitude and the biggest air that the riders did.
Could people see that on TV?
People were able to see it on the live stream, I don't know if they saw it on TV because I don't know if NBC had the rights to it. We saw and the people who were sitting at the venue saw how big, and the average runs, each rider was on each hit.
Shaun’s first hit of his final run. PHOTO: Mark Clavin
Another one of the things judges look at is the risk of the run. So Shaun starts out his run here with the frontside 1440 grabbing Indy all the way around going massive just into the cab 1440, just a huge combo right off the bat. If he falls on those, his run is over. He doesn't have a chance to do that skyhook or the 12 to 12, and we take that into consideration. Ayumu starts out with his frontside air and then he into the 14-14-12-12, which in all is a better combo together, but with the amplitude and the risk of the run going at the top and the straight air compared to the skyhook frontside 540… as judges, we decided that it bumped him just above Ayumu.
The one thing I want people to take out of this is that the scores don't mean anything. The fact that Shaun was two points higher than Ayumu or wherever the scores were going in for the entire run has nothing to do with it. We use the scores to rank the riders and Shaun, after this run, was ranked first. Ayumu second, Scotty third. Don't look at the scores, scores are nothing. Don't believe the media, don't believe the hype, scores are nothing. We just use those for ranking. It's all about the ranking and I think we got that right.
If we were to take style, grabs, everything out of the run, Shaun starts off his run with 14-14-540-12-12, whereas Ayumu drops in and does a backside air into 14-14-12-12. So if you just look at it mathematically and that's the only thing you're looking at, Shaun's run is a little bit bigger as far as the rotations go. And we're just talking straight rotations—no style, no anything else involved. If you weren't grabbing it is still pretty fucked up in itself.
But luckily all these other things are judged as well, so that's why snowboarding is snowboarding.
So one of the things for me is that when Ayumu did his backside hit here, he kind of brings his board up to his feet, does a backside air, there's no tweak, it's just a grab while he is in the air setting up for the next trick. As opposed to X Games where he took the gold medal, Ayumu did a dive-bomb Indy, so stylish. Boned it out and just that in itself is a harder trick than what he did with the backside air here at Olympics.
Why are you open about your judging?
We're here to judge snowboarding and if snowboarding changes and the riders decide that something else needs to be involved in snowboarding, we're here to talk to them about that and what they think should be judged higher. We're not judges setting the limit and setting the bar for where snowboarding needs to go. We're here to work with snowboarding. It's a symbiotic relationship. What people want to see and what people want to do in snowboarding, we're here to judge how well they do it. For us it's not trying to see the best, the most spins, everything like that—it's what the riders want to do and how well they do it.
For how high Scotty James is going, we are convinced that he must be part kangaroo. PHOTO: Mark Clavin
And what about Scotty's run?
Scotty James is a phenomenal snowboarder. I mean the kid drops into the pipe and every time he is just going to show you something amazing with his run, with the three different 1260's. He does the front double 12, he does the back double 12, the cab 5 Taipan, right into the switch backside double 1260, which is one of the most progressive, most difficult tricks in the game. At the end of the day, when it came down to it at the runs, his amplitude just really wasn't there and that's kind of the one thing that hurt him. Everything else was there. Everything else was so well done. Scotty is such a good rider, it was tough. It's such a tough call to put him in third place but at the end of the day with the technicality and the amplitude that was going down at the rest of the runs, it's where we had to put him as judges.
Scotty James was unable to put down a clean third run after falling on his fourth hit. PHOTO: Mark Clavin
And we can talk about Ben Ferg, why is he the riders rider?
Ben Ferguson is another whole beast. That kid dropped into the pipe and went to the moon, no pun intended on his astronaut outfit, but that air-to-fakie was one of my favorite tricks of Olympics, and just backing it up with a cab double 10. Little loose on that one and I think that is the biggest thing that hurt him, but into the double Crippler, backside 360 Stalefish, just as picture perfect as you can do it. Ferg's run was super creative, super progressive, few instabilities there that bumped him into that fourth place, but it's something I think he should be proud of.
Ben Ferguson on his way to the moon. PHOTO: Mark Clavin
Why was this event important to snowboarding? What are the numbers? What does this event mean to snowboarding?
I think it was one of the best finals in pipe just beating out X Games, which just happened two three weeks ago. The crowd was insane, the crowd was massive and the rough numbers I heard was somewhere around 100 million people worldwide watching it. It was just amazing to let the world know this is what we do, this is how we do it, and this is fucking snowboarding.
The on-snow support for Ayumu was easily visible. PHOTO: Mark Clavin
Why did it just beat out X Games?
Shaun competed, Ayumu, Ben, Scotty, they all put it down on the line and it's riding for your country. When you're at X Games, it's riding for yourself and I mean, you're still riding for yourself here, but it's everything as well. Everybody came to watch what we do, how we do it.Wwe don't call our runs before we drop. We don't do something how someone says we should do it. Every rider does their tricks how they want to do in their run that they put together almost as much as the art piece that we're sitting here looking at in the lobby. It really is watching art happen. They have to do that live painting or that live art on queue.
And finally, your thoughts on snowboarding’s place in the Olympics?
Snowboarding is the best Olympic event that they have. So much respect to every athlete that goes out there and puts everything they have on the line to do it, but I don't know, maybe I'm biased when it comes to this, but snowboarding is snowboarding and we're here to stay.