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Australian snowboarder Scotty James is having an identity crisis. He has become so good at his sport that Americans have begun claiming him as their own. "People refer to it as the Russell Crowe effect," he says. It's an easy mistake to make when the world's best halfpipe snowboarder hails from a country as little known for its snowfall as Colorado is for its surf breaks.
But coming into this Olympic season, James is the man to beat, having dominated most of last season over Olympic gold medalists Shaun White and Iouri Podladtchikov. At 23, James has already competed in the sport for a decade, so it would be easy to label 2017 -- when he won X Games Aspen, the Olympic test event and his second consecutive world title -- as the climax of his career. But James sees it as just another phase in his evolution, the result of reinventing his riding and revitalizing his mindset. "I'm just getting started," he says.
James was 3 when his father bought him his first snowboard for $10 while on vacation in Whistler, British Columbia. It was plastic, with a single-strap binding, and was such a novelty that the shop's owner was using it as a doorstop. "I remember the day he gave it to me so clearly," James says.
Ten years later, he was dominating junior contests. As an Australian, he had to leave his family and friends in Melbourne to train and compete in the U.S. "It was hard," he says, "but we knew it was what I had to do to get what I wanted. When I was 13, I didn't lose one competition. I was that kid."
Off the snow, his personality was equally vibrant. Known for showing up to the mountain wearing fluorescent pink track pants, outrageous shoes and the most ridiculous hats he could find, Little Scotty, as he was known at the time, all but dared his peers to comment. "I didn't care what anyone thought," he says. "I was confident and did what I enjoyed."
At 14, James landed his first major sponsorship and turned pro. Just one year later, he was thrust onto Australia's 2010 Olympic halfpipe team when Nate Johnstone suffered a last-minute ankle injury. The youngest male Olympian in Vancouver, James landed his qualifying run but failed to make the semifinals, finishing a disappointing 21st.
"Snowboarding had become a job," he says. "I wasn't enjoying it. I wasn't making decisions for myself at that point." Instead, he was trying to please his new sponsors and manage external pressures to perform while navigating the minefield of adolescence. "It's amazing what can affect you on a big sporting stage like the Olympics," he says. "Being confident in yourself outside of snowboarding is so important. But I lost that confidence. I was insecure. Everyone's opinions started to matter, from what I was wearing to how I was riding."
As his confidence shrank, James began to grow. Between 16 and 18, he shot up nearly a foot to his current height of 6-foot-2. "I needed new boots every other month, and my board was constantly changing," he says. Just as he would break in new equipment, he'd outgrow it, which made progress nearly impossible.
"Also, my muscle memory didn't work anymore," James says.
After a particularly frustrating season, he flew home to Australia in spring 2011 and told his parents he was quitting snowboarding. "It was the hardest point in my career," James says, "but I'm grateful for that experience."
His family encouraged him to take a deep breath, so he did some soul-searching, then enlisted the help of former pro Abe Teter. A 6-footer known for his style -- and for his sister, Hannah, who won gold in 2006 -- Teter showed James how to embrace his height and use it to differentiate his tricks from everyone else's. James competed in both Slopestyle and halfpipe at the 2014 Sochi Olympics -- one of only five men in the world to do so -- but he still finished off the podium. "I was a jack of all trades, master of none," he says. "I was in Sochi to compete but not to compete against the best in the world."
He decided to use the next two seasons to relearn the fundamentals and focus on halfpipe. He devoted time to working only on carving, improving his amplitude and perfecting his air awareness with basic tricks like methods and 360s. "At his level, it wasn't about the physical challenge. It was mental," says James Jackson, Red Bull's high-performance snowboard coach. "It was an ego check for him to do straight airs all day. But I told him, 'If you're willing to do this, you'll take steps back, but you will catapult forward.'"
At the start of 2017, while packing for X Games Aspen, James came across a pair of boxing-inspired snowboard gloves a friend had sent him a few years earlier. "Because I'm Australian," he says, "like the boxing kangaroo." For years, he'd considered himself a fighter; now he was ready to prove it. "I was fired up and had a lot I wanted to achieve," James says. "When I found those gloves, I was like, 'These are the key.'"
Sporting those gloves, which he continued to wear all season, James came out swinging in Aspen, launching a method more than 21 feet out of the halfpipe on his first hit. He won gold over every X Games champ of the past decade with his first-run score of 90. But he didn't dwell on the victory. "Winning X Games is such a big feat," James says. "Then there's this question straightaway of, 'Can he do it again?'"
He'll answer that question on Jan. 28, when he drops in to defend his X Games title before hitting the world stage at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February. To cement his status as the new halfpipe king, he plans to debut a trick that's never been landed during a contest -- the switch backside double cork 1260. And he's not waiting until the Olympics to show his hand. "If you want to win a competition this year, you can't hold back," he says.
With a fresh pair of fighting gloves emblazoned with his name and his old confidence restored, James is ready. He finished second to surprise winner Jake Pates at the Dew Tour in Breckenridge in mid-December with a new run that didn't include his new trick. He returns to competition Jan. 10 at the U.S. Grand Prix at Aspen Snowmass, the first of three major contests that lead to Pyeongchang. "The tables had to turn eventually," he says. "You might even see those fluorescent pink pants."