PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Laurie Blouin had already experienced the worst of what the Phoenix Snow Park’s slopestyle course had to offer, a training crash Friday leaving her with both a black eye and a barely clotted gash just beneath. The snowboarder from Stoneham, Que., was determined to race in the Olympics moments after she caught a toe edge and slammed her head into ground, so she wasn’t going to let wind gusts of up to 35 km/h deter her from going down the hill.
“I was at the top with (American) Jamie Anderson and I was like we should just do it today,” she said. “I was ready. I was ready.”
Very much so, as it turned out, on a day that left many of her fellow riders lamenting, if not outrightly criticizing, the International Ski Federation’s certainly questionable, perhaps reckless decision to start the competition at all. Most competitors fell on at least one of their two runs, if not both, under conditions Canadian Spencer O’Brien described as a “lottery.”
“If you got a run without wind,” she continued, “you really had a chance.”
O’Brien wasn’t among the lottery winners, but Blouin sure was, even as she adapted the final jump on her second run from a double under-flip to a single because of a wind gust. She landed a clean run and scored 76.33, the play-it-safe earning her a silver medal. The defending world champion debated going big – “at first I was like, we’re in the final, might as well send it,” she said – but ultimately went strategic.
“I was like, OK, a lot of girls are falling, I should go safe,” she continued, “and that’s what I did.”
Anderson followed a similar path to repeat as Olympic champion, winning her lottery during the first run when she scored an 83. Afterwards, she noted that she didn’t pull out her best tricks or even perform the jumps she did as well as she could, but had overcome years of black eyes and bloody noses from practice falls to reclaim the podium’s top step.
“It’s hard to come back when you have those crashes, but I think that’s what makes us warriors, like this bad-ass,” said Anderson, tapping Blouin on the shoulder. “When you fall you just have to get back up and keep going.”
Others weren’t as forthcoming with the tough-girl bravado, including Finn Enni Rukajarvi, who got down the course without a fall on her second run to score 75.38, but said FIS, the ski federation, “should have cancelled it or moved it” the way it did Sunday, when qualifications were cancelled, condensed into a two-run, 26-rider final that was further delayed by 75 minutes Monday.
“I’m most happy no one got hurt really bad,” she added, a sentiment several other snowboarders shared.
O’Brien, who fell on her first run and was forced to give up on her second run when “the gnarliest gust of wind I’d gotten all day” prevented her from attempting her second jump, ended 22nd, one spot behind Brooke Voigt of Fort McMurray, Alta., who also caught major wind on both her runs.
The world No. 4 in slopestyle coming, O’Brien initially watched her fellow competitors to try and get a read on the course, but stopped because “it was so painful to see some of the crashes that were happening and to see how short some girls were coming up.”
Emotional after a 12th place finish at the Sochi Games, which she had entered as the defending world champion but was still coming to terms with a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, the native of Courtenay, B.C., didn’t have any troubles coming to terms with her performance Monday.
“That was a perfect day for riding,” she said of Sochi. “Here, I can’t beat myself up. That was completely out of my control and I did everything I could. You’ve got to be happy with that on days like today.”
What she wasn’t happy with was the FIS decided to start the event “without our opinion at all. Ninety per cent of the women did not want to ride today.”
Added Voigt: “What we do is scary as it is and we’re used to that and dealing with those fears. But it’s a different scenario when you have no control over what’s about to happen. If it’s a downhill wind you’re going to go really, really big and if it’s an uphill wind you’re not going to move very far and it could be different on every feature. … I don’t think it’s necessarily what we had hoped to demonstrate here.”
Another point that left snowboarders frustrated was that the Olympic schedule didn’t include buffers to accommodate the potential for a postponement. A tight slopestyle schedule that had the men and women competing over three days left little leeway to adjust.
“They need weather days, especially in slopestyle,” said Austrian Anna Gasser, the world No. 3 who finished 15th.
The vantage point, of course, looks different from the podium and regardless of the circumstances Blouin made sure to revel in her moment.
She was stretchered off the course following Friday’s crash and was taken to hospital, where tests revealed no damage to her neck. When she showed no concussion symptoms, a team doctor allowed her to test herself on the course and cleared her to compete when “I felt 100 per cent in control of what I was doing.”
“For sure I had a headache (after the impact), but I was feeling good, like I can still ride. I was feeling confident,” said Blouin. “I’m really stubborn. If I want to compete, I will compete.”
Compete she did, making her first Olympics a success already with the big air still to come.
As she came off the course following the venue ceremony, she took some calls, first from her mom, Martin Collin, who watched the race back home at her aunt’s pub, then from her coach, and finally from her dad, Pierre, who was watching at home with his girlfriend.
“He was crying. He never cries,” said Blouin. “Then I cried because he was crying.”
Others cried, too, cried foul over a race that probably shouldn’t have started, cried over organizers not giving competitors a voice and cried over the unfairness of having four years of work come down to the randomness of when the wind blows.
“For sure it’s unfair because some of the girls were really getting big wind gusts,” said Blouin. “I felt a really big gust on the last jump and I managed to land it. We always have to deal with these conditions.”
For her, a little bit of strategy and a little bit of luck dealt her a silver medal.