Mark McMorris gives a little wince when asked to describe his final slopestyle run, the one that pulled him back, not for the first time, from the brink of disaster; the one that won him Canada’s first Olympic medal at the Sochi Winter Games Saturday; the one that stretched the limits of sports science. It’s not the busted 11th rib on his lower back that causes the discomfort, it’s that he realizes most of the assembled media won’t know what the hell he’s talking about.
Snowboard slopestyle—a stylish combo of rail-riding, jumps, flips and aerial spins—made its Olympic debut here in the mountains of Krasnaya Polyana, so it remains a bit of a mystery to many of those over , say, 21, about the age of all three of the cool kids on the podium. So describing a run is rather like explaining twerking to your great aunt, who happens to be a nun.
“Um, all right, you guys asked for it.” McMorris said:
“Switch…hardway…frontside P-70…gap, from the first downside down, into a cab 180…50-50 byside-30 on the up-rail and front board same-way P-70 out, on the next down ramp. And then a backside 540. Bonk. Russian doll, and no more dolls fell out. And then I did a cab triple underflip. A cab-thriple cork 12, whatever you want to call it. Then a frontside double cork 14-40.”
Or words to that effect.
A cab launches backward off a jump and lands forward, usually with as spin thrown in. A cork is an inverted, off-axis spin with the rider near upside down. A bonk is deliberately hitting an object like a rail with the snowboard. And the rest, to be honest, is a total blur, even in slow motion.
But the beauty of the event is its absolute televisual coolness. A lot of it comes from the acrobatics, but most of it springs from the attitude of the riders themselves.
At the end of the event, it was hard to tell which of the top three had won gold. They all seemed genuinely happy for the totally wicked runs of their competitors. As Stalle Sandbech, the Norwegian who won silver, would later explain, slopestylists bring a mellower ethos to the Olympics. “We’re just out there snowboarding, smiling and being friends. It’s not like we’re training in secrecy and hiding from the other guys, where you can’t even do handshakes because we don’t want to get sick and all that. I guess we’re more laid back and loose about it.”
It was hard not to be thrilled by the happy-go-lucky honesty of American Sage Kostenburg, who won gold. He flat-out admitted he never even expected to make the finals. Until he qualified for the Olympics last month, he hadn’t won an event since he was 11. “I had a mega drought.”
Like McMorris, he barely scraped into the medal round. Both had to duke it out in a semi-final race earlier Saturday to advance. With nothing to lose, and just happy to be on the hill for the big race, Kostenburg decided about three minutes before the race to thrown down a little invention he calls the “Holy Crail”, a 4 1Ž2 rotation spin while grabbing the board behind his back.
“I had never even tried it before, literally,” he said later. “Never ever tried it before in my life.” He is not one to over plan, he said. He likes the randomness of the sport. Two American journalists would later calculate he used the word “stoked” 14 times in 22 minutes. That’s one happy dude.
As for McMorris, who escaped elimination more times in this event than a Sochi feral dog, the bronze, he said later feels an awful lot like gold. It was just weeks ago that he fractured his rib in a crash at an X Games event. The fact that he was even riding, let alone able to pull of a high-risk run for bronze, is testament to the grit and resilience of youth—and massive advances in the level of support the Canadian Olympic Committee is able to give its athletes.
The fractured rib was bound tight by a mass of muscle that acted as something of a natural cast, but it also limited his mobility. What followed were rounds of acupuncture, massage, daily workouts in the pool, and heavy gym time once he was able to get some mobility back. “We were hitting it hard, just getting ready for an scenario where I could take an impact,” he said. At one point, staff accessed body armour to bind his ribs, but McMorris felt he didn’t need it.
“The team of medical specialists I had around me was unbelievable. They got me back from a broken rib and onto my snowboard within nine days, and able to do what I did today,” he said. “They just kept pushing me and pushing me. It’s been the most draining week of my life.” And among the most rewarding.
Even for a dude who radiates a calm self-assurance, the Olympics is a big honkin’ deal, and he admits he found it overwhelming in the early going. “It was truthfully, just the most insane roller-coaster ever,” he said of his Olympic experience.
While he’s had his share of victories, nothing compares to this bronze he said.
“It’s just sinking in. it’s the biggest sporting event in the whole world, you know: the Olympics,” he said, as if realizing it for the first time.
Come medal time, McMorris was first up on the podium. The bronze riser is maybe a foot off the snow, but for a boy from the flats of Saskatchewan that’s high enough to see for miles. The future looked very sweet indeed.