PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Sure, it was cold, minus-14 at the start of men’s slopestyle final, making the packed snow at the bottom of each jump pavement hard. But it was those swirling gusts of wind at Phoenix Snow Park, so bitter that it felt like tiny pin-pricks against your skin, that left the snowboarders competing in the Olympic final with a decision to make.
Play it safe? Or, go for it?
Mark McMorris didn’t play it safe Sunday, even though more than anyone else he had reason to. Two years ago he broke his right femur. Last spring, he slammed into a tree while snowboarding in the B.C. backcountry, the left side of his body essentially shattered by the impact. His brother Craig and their friends helped build a nest to protect him while awaiting an airlift. At the hospital, a coma was induced. Yet less than a year later he was atop that windy hill at the Pyeongchang Games, sitting second with only two riders after him, having just been overtaken by American teenager Red Gerard’s clean but safe run.
Play it safe? McMorris broke out a back-triple-1,620 – a trick he hadn’t practised in a month – to close out an improvised second run, and then tried it again on his third run, looking to do it cleaner.
"I did (consider playing it safe), the coaches didn’t think that was a good idea and I thought it’s worse when you play it safe and it doesn’t work out, you know?" said McMorris, a clean landing on his final jump away from putting down the best run of the day. "It was all there. It almost worked. But it did work out at the same time. I’m on the podium, I probably shouldn’t even be here. Pretty stoked."
The Regina native ended up third, bumped down to bronze by the day’s final rider, Max Parrot, who gave up on going big after the wind spoiled his first run, struggled through his second and then nailed his final, less technical trip down the mountain.
The double-podium were Canada’s first medals at the 2018 Games.
"I saw Red Gerard do his run, and he didn’t have two triples, he was just clean from top to bottom," said the native of Bromont, Que., an eight-time X-Games medallist who finished fifth in Sochi. "And I think that was what the judges really want to see, so it made me confident if I could land my run it would put me in a great position."
The 23-year-old closed his final run with a backside triple cork 44, and then awaited the scoring to see where he’d end up. Traditionally, he’s been better in the big air rather than slopestyle.
"I’m on a cloud even though there’s not really clouds there, but yeah, it’s my first Olympic medal," he said with a grin. "It’s a little check next to that, mission accomplished for me here, and I’m really happy."
Less happy was Sebastien Toutant of L’Assomption, Que., who decided to go for it, too, on his final run but put too much weight on his front foot during his final landing and fell.
Seb Toots, as he’s known, settled for 11th after finishing ninth at Sochi, agonizing over the narrow margin that spoiled a run "probably good enough for first place."
"If I would have a little less weight on my front foot, I would have stayed up. So it was by an inch," he said. "It’s so frustrating because literally the whole run was perfect and in the first run, it was kind of like a giveaway because of the wind. It’s hard. It’s super hard. So close, you know? It’s like someone took it away from me. But all good."
Like many of the boarders, Toutant wished the weather conditions weren’t a factor and that everyone "would have showed up with their best run." The women’s slopestyle qualification a couple of hours later was postponed to Monday morning.
"I wish (McMorris) would have landed that last run. Everything was more clean. Mark definitely went for the winning run. He went pretty all in on the jump," said Toutant. "Max definitely played it well. He was trying to go for a winning run, it wasn’t working on the second jump, so he went a little safer on the last run … smart move.
"It’s nice. They’re all good homies. I’m hyped for them, and I wish I could have joined them on the podium."
The second Olympic bronze for McMorris felt much different than the first, given all the 24-year-old has been through over the past couple of years. When he snapped his femur on a landing at a big air event in February 2016, he was among the best snowboarders in the game, ahead of the curve in his tricks and jumps, with others chasing him.
Then came the recovery and soon after he returned to competition from the broken leg, he hit the tree March 25, 2017. Even though he won in his first event back, a World Cup big air in November, there were still questions in his head about where he was at.
"Everybody starts doing crazier and crazier stuff, or the stuff you’re doing," said McMorris. "That can be tough at times, you have a little bit of self-doubt and you’re like oh, my leg hurts, this hurts, but at the end of the day, I’ve had so much success in competition post injury and been able to land at the right times, I’m really happy with everything and the way it’s going. Been some low times, but these high times make it worthwhile. Glad I pulled through that last injury to be here because this is pretty special."
McMorris avoided delving too deep into all he’s endured, all the challenges, saying he wanted to stay in the moment, avoid rehashing the terrible memories. But they’re there and he knows what he accomplished and how that might potentially impact people.
"Not being able to move, really, being super uncomfortable, not being able to really talk or anything like that," McMorris said of his lowest point. "That sucked, because it’s just from one stupid mistake, and I wish I could take it back every day of my life. But I don’t know. Maybe it made me a better person, or stronger. Maybe it helps people get through things, too.
"So I’m glad I can be in the position I am to motivate."
McMorris didn’t play it safe. He went for it, and regardless of colour, he’s got another Olympic medal as a result.