Back when Don McMorris had a no-win portfolio as Saskatchewan’s health minister, his youngest son, Mark, figures he had the roughest and most high-profile job in the family. These days, the elder McMorris has a less bruising role as minister of transport, while Mark is blazing trails, drawing crowds (and the occasional comment in the provincial legislature) as a snowboard superstar. “Now that he’s highways and such, I might have to take the cake,” Mark concedes. “This year has been pretty wild for me, not just with the Olympics. There’s a lot of running around in my life right now.”
Mark McMorris, a 20-year-old flatlander from Regina, is a red-hot practitioner of one of the coolest mountain sports at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games: the Olympic debut of snowboard slopestyle. “Like, who doesn’t want to watch a real-life video game?” he asks in the laid-back monotone of a self-assured dude. “That’s what it looks like. It’s got just so much intensity and slipping and creativity. It’s just amazing.”
The sport involves rocketing down a 600-m course, grinding along rails, launching off jumps and occasionally remaining in contact with the snow. Slopestyle is one of the premier events at the television-friendly X Games, drawing a hip, young demographic, which the International Olympic Committee is banking on for a major bump in broadcast ratings.
McMorris—who got his start with his brother Craig, launching off any snowbank Regina could offer, and riding the pimple-sized Mission Ridge Winter Park near Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask.—has built himself into an international brand since winning the first World Cup slopestyle competition he entered at age 16. Clearly what the Prairie environment lacks, the McMorrises make up for in heredity. Craig, Mark’s older brother by two years, is also a pro boarder and the one Mark credits with pushing him to podium-level performances. Last season, Mark racked up four gold medals at the sport’s premier events, including the X Games in Aspen and the U.S. Open in Vail, Colo., and a silver at the European X Games in France. He ended the season as the top-ranked slopestyler on the World Snowboard Tour.
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He’s rarely earthbound on the mountains, where gravity seems but a minor inconvenience. He was the first to deliver in competition a “backside triple cork 1440,” which involves launching off a jump and completing three off-axis flips and four full rotations before touchdown. “Like a hurricane in air,” the New York Times said of McMorris. Mastering his trademark move—the snowboard equivalent of figure skating’s quadruple jump—is likely to be a podium prerequisite in Sochi, putting McMorris at a distinct advantage.
When not airborne mountainside, he’s spent 2013 jetting off to television, sports video and sponsor commitments, and months of shooting for an MTV Canada reality series, McMorris & McMorris, in which he, brother Craig and a hyperactive posse of friends clock major snow, sand, sea and sun time. The eight-part series, which aired this fall, offered a behind-the-scenes look at the competitive business of pro boarding and of, well, goofing around with style. “Me and my brother, we travel the world, but the thing about us is we don’t try to hide that we have a lot of fun. It’s like, we’re professional snowboarders so people think we have fun, but we’ve got to show them.” The McMorris brothers are a tight, complementary unit. “My brother,” says Mark, “is the most lighthearted, crazy human you’ll ever meet.” As for Mark, fun is tempered with a level of intensity you’d expect from a world-class athlete.
It takes courage and imagination to conceive something like the triple cork, or whatever the next new trick is in the rapidly evolving sport. “You play it through your mind over and over again, and try to understand what it’s going to be like,” McMorris says. “But until you try it you don’t know. It’s somewhat of a trial-and-error process. We all have such amazing air awareness to know where we are, flipping, flying 100 feet. It’s pretty crazy. The process of learning a new trick is definitely scary, but when you progress it’s the feeling of learning that keeps you interested.” The beauty of slopestyle is that any boarder on any hill can relate to the incremental progress, he says. “Even if you learn one little toe-side turn as a beginner, or [you’re] learning a new triple cork, it’s the same. ‘Oh, I can learn still, it’s really fun for me.’ ”
Well, not quite the same. McMorris is that rare elite athlete who doesn’t work with a coach because, false modesty aside, who better understands this sport? “Nobody in the world can do what I can do, and when somebody who can’t do it tries to tell me how to do it, it doesn’t really make sense, you know?” He does travel with a team, including a videographer with a solid grasp of sports science. “We just talk things over when I watch. I look at the angle where I could switch something up, or put my head there, or grab differently. I can definitely learn from my mistakes and progress,” he says. “I don’t,” he stresses, in case that sounds arrogant, “have anything against coaches.”
How flying solo works in an Olympic world of high-performance directors, coaches and sports psychologists is anyone’s guess. It certainly feeds the same rebel vibe that made the half-pipe one of the hottest-selling Olympic events at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. The pipe was dominated back then by flame-haired American Shaun White, a sponsor’s dream and iconic global brand. White was once the man in X Games slopestyle, too, until McMorris grabbed top spot on the podium the past two years running. Expect a major rivalry in Sochi as White, 27, an old man in relative terms, looks to medal both in slopestyle, and again in half-pipe, where McMorris doesn’t compete.
Any bad blood between him and White is a media creation, McMorris says. “I think they just want a juicy story, but that’s okay. It adds a lot more pressure and intensity, which makes it a lot more fun for both of us.” He predicts White will be unbeatable again on the half-pipe in Sochi.
As for slopestyle, where McMorris has the edge, well, bring it on. “Shaun is a really incredible snowboarder and an even better competitor. He can perform under pressure every time, and I respect that,” McMorris says in a make-my-day monotone as flat as the Saskatchewan landscape. “We both really like to win. It puts on a really good show. It’s going to be a battle in Sochi.”