Mark McMorris is known for rising to the occasion — whether that’s coming back from horrific injuries or landing the best run when it counts most.
But in an incredible slopestyle snowboarding final, that magic wasn’t quite enough and he found himself with Olympic bronze, again.
It was his teammate Max Parrot who found the right combination on this day — which turned out to be playing it just a little safer — to pull himself from the back of the pack all the way to Olympic silver on his final run. The two medals were Canada’s first of the Pyeongchang Games.
American Redmond Gerard, the youngest man in the field at 17, took the gold.
“I’m on a cloud even though there’s not really clouds here,” Parrot said, grinning.
“It’s my first Olympic medal. It’s a little check next to that. It’s mission accomplished for me here.”
To make that happen, though, the 23-year-old from Bromont Que., had to make a tough call, weighing risk versus reward.
He went for the gold on his first two runs, which included some of the hardest jumps in slopestyle, and crash landed both times. He had to decide whether to try that same run for a third time or dial back the difficulty to increase the odds of landing on his feet.
“It was very hard,” he said of the choice he had to make. “On the second run I was going to go for a safer run but then I saw Mark doing two triples in a row and I was like, ‘Oh my god I can’t go for safe run, no way, I’ve got to go for two triples in a row.’ So I tried it again and, boom, hit my head again,” he said.
“So, the third run, I’m going safe.”
In the world of snowboarding, “safe” means doing a run with just a single triple backflip with four spins.
McMorris made the opposite choice.
After his second run — which included the most technical combination of rail tricks and jumps — he was in first place.
When Gerard’s final run pushed him to second, McMorris thought about playing it safe but, after talking to his coaches, decided against it.
So he went for his hardest run, again, hoping to clean it up for the judges and it looked great right up until the final jump when crashed down the slope on his landing, leaving the door open for Parrot’s final run to move him to third.
“It’s worse when you play it safe and it doesn’t work out, you know,” Regina’s McMorris said. “And it was all there, it almost worked out, but it did work out at the same time.”
He means just being here and able to win to a bronze medal to add to the one he won at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
In 2016, McMorris broke his femur in an accident in competition and then, after six months for intensive rehabilitation, worked his way back to the top of his sport.
Then in 2017, he crashed into a tree while backcountry snowboarding in Whistler, B.C., breaking much of what there is to break in the human body and had to go through rehab all over again.
“There’s been some low times but these high times make it worthwhile,” McMorris, 24, said.
“I’m glad I pulled through that last injury to be here because this is pretty special.”
With a full third of the 12-man final wearing a Canadian uniform it looked certain to be a good day for our country, and Parrot and McMorris came through with podium finishes.
North Bay’s Tyler Nicholson, 22, finished seventh while Sebastien Toutant, 25, from L’Assomption, Que., was 11th.
The International Olympic Committee has been opening the door to more and more of these freestyle action sports in an effort to draw new and younger audiences to the Games, and it’s easy to see why slopestyle has become one of the most popular events.
Snowboarders perform incredible feats of athleticism — flipping three times while spinning four times off the jumps, and sliding along rails like skateboarders in a city park — all the while making it look like they’re genuinely having fun. They watch and even cheer for each other’s runs.
But, as much as they talk in breezy tones about being stoked to be here riding such a sick course at the Olympics, this is a demanding sport and injuries are all too common.
It wasn’t just McMorris’ road to the Olympics that went through doctors and surgeons. Toutant compressed a disk in his back months ago and was only able to return to riding a few weeks ago; Nicholson tore his ACL last spring.
Only Parrot arrived here without a recent injury and was riding a high from an increasing number of big wins in the last two years, making a name for himself alongside the better known McMorris.
The Canadian teammates, and often rivals for the podium, will all meet again in the big air event — a single-trick event — which makes its Olympic debut in the final week of the Games.