PYEONGCHANG — Under a cloudless blue sky and a bright sun, the riders in snowboard Big Air are trying to figure out the venue at Alpensia Olympic Park.
They are jumping into the same bowl that is the landing spot for the ski jump events, but coming at it from the other direction. There are large grandstands on either side, but their landing zone has been built on top of the bleachers that would normally face the huge ski jumps.
As the riders launch themselves into the air, trying three full flips and at least four full rotations, the public address system blares Guns N’ Roses, and then Huey Lewis, as though they are trying to prevent the snowboarders from loitering.
The competitors hit the ground with a loud THWACK, and it is empty enough on this training day that you can hear them hoot and yell when they land, and especially when they don’t. Put a bunch of fans in those stands next week, and this will be quite a spectacle.
It is a fabulous site for redemption.
Canada’s men’s snowboard team landed two medals in the slopestyle competition as Pyeongchang 2018 got underway, but even with that impressive haul, there was a distinct sense of business that remained unfinished.
Strong winds that blustered all over Phoenix Snow Park forced many riders to scale back the difficulty of their slopestyle runs. Sébastien Toutant came within an inch or two of a perfect run; instead a fall on the last jump left him well back of the podium.
Mark McMorris tried the hardest run of the day, just missed his last trick, and settled for a bronze medal. Considering he was almost dead 11 months ago, he had zero regrets, he said. And Max Parrot, who fell on each of his first two runs, removed a triple attempt for his final run, rode cleanly, and won the silver medal.
The gold went to 17-year-old American Red Gerard, who looks like he needs to show ID to get into a PG-13 film.
Parrot, speaking after a training session at Big Air where he will be the top-ranked rider in the field, said there are some regrets about the slopestyle final. They just aren’t what you might think.
Parrot doesn’t second-guess going with a safer run for his final attempt; it got him on the podium for his first Olympic medal.
“I’m super proud of that,” says the 22-year-old from Bromont, Que. “I had so much pressure on the last run.”
What he is not quite as proud of, he admits, is not making that safe run his second run. His original plan for the finals was a run that included back-to-back triples. But in the treacherous winds, he didn’t land the first of them in his first run. He decided that for his second run, he would only attempt the triple on his last jump. A conservative play, but one that if executed well would put him in podium position, and allow him to go all-out, back-to-back triples, with his final run.
Except, as he was standing at the top of the hill for his second run, he saw McMorris, just ahead of him, hit two triples, albeit in a slightly messy run.
“It kind of motivated me,” Parrot says. He tried two triples. “And I bailed again.” Now he had no choice but to go easier on his final run: it worked out, for a silver medal. But there will always be that strategic misstep, and that what-might-have-been.
Such thoughts will almost certainly come into play at Big Air, too. Should the Canadians get through qualifying on Wednesday, the finals are best 2-of-3 jumps. If someone can land the first two cleanly, they have a chance to go for something crazy with the last one — a quad, maybe, though the riders don’t think the jump at Alpensia is big enough to get in one of those.
And that means the competition could play out in a similar way to slopestyle, with everyone adjusting to wind, and adjusting to what others are doing, and trying to figure out what tricks will get them on the podium while still having a shot at gold.
“It’s nice to get two shots (at a medal),” said Toutant, who after slopestyle was clearly bummed by the wind-affect runs but declared himself happy that Parrot and McMorris — “they’re all good homies” — had found the podium.
“Definitely slopestyle was a real bummer that I couldn’t finish my run with the last trick,” Toutant said. “But I love competing, I love snowboarding. “You know, you get bummed, but after a couple days you get excited to go ride. It’s going to be all good. In the moment I was bummed out, but I’m glad I get to show up again, and maybe this time I can get a medal.”
And where slopestyle was on a tricky course that had a lot of options built into it, Big Air is just like it sounds: ramp, jump, and then a lot of soaring.
“It’s such a straight shot that you just stand at the top, and wait for the wind,” said Tyler Nicholson, the fourth member of the Canadian men’s squad. “And when it’s good, you just go and let it rip.”
“I’m stoked,” Nicholson said. No doubt they all are.