KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA - Perhaps, on this day anyway, Mark McMorris wasn’t quite as cool as his sport, which made its Olympic debut under a brilliant blue sky and in front of an amped up, youthful crowd.
Maybe it wasn’t so easy to be chill when suddenly you go from a budding X Games legend to a guy who, prior to the Games, one high-ranking Canadian Olympic Committee official tabbed as the country’s top hope for individual gold.
And maybe the pain from a broken rib was more than he cared to let on, the punishing prospect that awaited when he touched ground after any and all of his spectacular jumps.
He may not have won gold here at the Roza Khutor Extreme Park on Saturday, but the 20-year-old won bronze in the men’s slopestyle competition with as gritty and pressure-filled final run as he’s faced in his young career.
“It was truthfully the most insane roller coaster ever,” McMorris said not long after he gained the distinction of claiming Canada’s first medal at these Sochi Winter Games. “Sure I would have liked it to be gold, but it’s sinking in that this is the biggest sporting event in the whole world.
“(It) was beyond any pressure I’ve ever dealt with. With what I’ve been through in the last two weeks, just standing on the podium in general feels like a gold medal to me.
“It’s a huge sigh of relief right now.”
That relief may also been peppered with some disappointment given the expectations for the delightfully personable Regina native. His story was too good to resist, borne from an unlikely love for a sport given his Saskatchewan roots thus making his rise as a cult figure in a mountain-based sport all the more impressive.
So perhaps, then, there are two ways to score the bronze that the confidently hip snowboarder earned with a clutch performance in the second run of both the semifinal and final to begin what some are predicting will be a record medal haul for Canada.
For starters, there should never be shame in winning an Olympic medal, regardless of the colour, especially for a kid less than two months out of his teens.
In slipping to third – perhaps thanks to some questionable judging and his own lashing out at the scores in Thursday’s preliminaries – McMorris fell short of what was predicted of him.
But if there was even a whiff of disappointment from the prairie boy turned mountain mogul, good luck finding it. For all that is slick and cavalier about McMorris, a style and attitude well documented before arriving in Sochi, there is still a kid enjoying his sport and in particular its welcome moment to the Olympic family.
“It’s just an amazing feeling to start the Games off with a medal for Canada,” said a joyful McMorris, who draped himself in his country’s flag when the results were made official. “It’s beyond anything I’ve ever competed in. And it’s history. It was such a great day for snowboarding and such a great day for slopestyle. It’s really, really cool.”
Though his score of 88.75 saw him bumped late from second place by Staale Sandbech of Norway (91.75) – a he wasn’t truly close to American gold-medal winner Sage Kotsenberg (93.50) – McMorris certainly overcame a great deal just to get to the podium.
The rib injury was a concern from the day it happened two weeks ago, an incredibly painful ordeal that would have sidelined a lesser athlete in many a sport. But with aggressive rehab and a strong sense of mind over matter, McMorris didn’t let that obstacle hinder him.
Nor did he let sloppiness in his first run in both the semifinal and final keep him from the podium. On each, he needed to be near flawless and in the last one especially laid down a ride that many felt should have earned him at least a silver medal.
Coming into these Games, so much was expected of McMorris and he appeared to be handling it in stride. But the Olympics aren’t the X Games, a point the snowboard star willingly acknowledged.
“I wouldn’t say that any of the pressure was coming internally, it’s all from the outside,” his coach, Adam Burrell said. “They’re looking at Mark to do well so of any of the riders, he’s scrutinzed the most next to (American snowboarding icon) Shaun White.
“He’s got the weight of the world, the weight of Canada on him and he delivered.”
WHAT IS SLOPESTYLE?
It wouldn’t be an Olympics without a funky new sport to appeal to a younger audience.
This year’s made-for-the-kids competition is called slopestyle, a discipline under the snowboard umbrella.
And as is so often the case, with new events, Canada is loaded with medal contenders.
Here’s a quick hit primer at what to expect from the competition, which has a good shot of providing Canada with its first medal of Sochi 2014 when the men’s event is settled on Saturday morning.
1. The Basics
In slopestyle, riders cruise down a course with a variety of obstacles such as rails, terrain features and jumps. A judged sport, the athletes are awarded points based on the execution and degree of difficulty of their tricks.
So far, eight boarders have qualified for Saturday’s men’s final with four more to make it in via a semifinal round earlier in the day. In the medal round, the competitors will have two runs with the best score winning.
Riding those rails (six inches in width and 15 feet off of the ground) has been described as trying to negotiate a gymnastics balance beam with snow mixed into the equation and travelling some 40 kilometres per hour.
2. The Reputation
As often can be the case when a new sport gets introduced into the Games, slopestyle has had its critics, most notably NBC broadcaster Bob Costas who ripped the competition on the Today show.
“I think the president of the IOC should be Johnny Knoxville,” Costas said of the actor. “Because basically this stuff is just ‘Jackass’’ stuff they invented and called an Olympic sport.”
Predictably, there was outrage in the slopestyle community, especially given NBC’s role in broadcasting the Games to the U.S.
“I’m glad Bob Costas said that,” American boarder Nick Goepper told ESPN.com. “Now it should draw interest and make slopestyle one of the most entertaining sports in the Olympics.”
3. The Back Story
Snowboarders have been lobbying for years to be included given the sport’s popularity at the X Games. An obvious hit with the younger generation, it is spectacular television with the snowboarders sliding on rails and boxes with the added thrills and spills of the flips and jumps.
Canadian athletes have long had success in snowboarding. In fact, in 1998 at Nagano, Ross Rebagliati won the first snowboard medal in Olympic history.
“It’s a great platform for our athletes, it’s a great platform for our sport,” Canadian Seb Toutant said of his sport’s inclusion in the Olympics. “
4. The Judging
A panel of five judges score the athletes in the following four areas with descriptions from Canada’s Freestyle ski association:
Amplitude: How much air the boarders get off of their jumps.
DD: The degree of difficulty of the tricks they perform, an area in which McMorris has pushed the envelope.
Execution: Quite simply, how well they perform their tricks.
Overall: The complete package, including the personal style the athlete brings to his run. This includes the grabs and positions the competitors add to the tricks to make them their own.