All photos: Sam Mellish
Night shift: Tom Copsey, Andrew Duthie, Sam McMahon, Ed Blomfield, Tristan Kennedy
After yesterday's qualifiers whittled down the field, today was business time for riders who'd made the cut for the men's Olympic Slopestyle finals. Here's how it panned out and who took home that all-important bling...
Despite challenging conditions, we were treated to some solid - if not stellar - slopestyle riding in the previous day's qualifiers (along with a dash of judging outrage controversy, naturally), where the impressive-looking course got its first rinsing. What we took away from the first runs was that there's not much room between those rail features, comparing crosscourt hits against straight jumps is an imprecise science, and lots of people like Miller Flips.
"There was no room for playing safe today, however, and if ever the clichés 'go big or go home', 'spin to win' and 'turn it up to 11' are relevant it's in an Olympic final"
The field was the same for everyone, though, and while there were a couple of surprises (ultra-spinner Chris Corning not making it through; the under-the-radar Carlos Garcia Knight posting the second highest score of Heat 1), for the most part the big name slope badboys all coped admirably, and proceeded to the Final without having to go all-in.
There was no room for playing safe today, however, and if ever the clichés 'go big or go home', 'spin to win' and 'turn it up to 11' are relevant it's in an Olympic final when you've spent the best part of two years trying to earn a seat at the table. It all. Comes down. To this.
Unlike the two-run qualis, today's finalists had three shots at putting down a run that counted, and while the weather was clearer, tempertatures had dropped again and - importantly - gusts of wind were causing problems. With nothing to be done about that, we buckled in for the ride. Niklas Mattsson had the honor of getting the ball rolling, while Max Parrot (as the highest scored qualifier) got the advantage of being the last in the field to drop.
Riders (in drop order): Niklas Mattsson, Seppe Smits, Torgeir Bergrem, Tyler Nicholson, Mons Roisland, Ståle Sandbech, Seb Toutant, Red Gerard, Carlos Garcia Knight, Mark McMorris, Marcus Kleveland, Max Parrot.
*Mons Roisland didn't make finals due to a savage crash in practice. Get better soon Mons!
The Norwegians managed to get all four of their team into the final, and with Canada managing the same feat this had all the makings of a two-horse race for gold.
Stale Sandbech – Norway’s poster boy – duly took an early lead, drawing on all his experience (not to mention some of the best skills in the business) to string together two clean runs. His best score came on run 2 with a line that included a frontlip to front blunt switchup (yeah, it’s as tech as it sounds), frontlip fakie cab 270 out, cab 1 back miller, frontside miller, frontside 1440, backside 1260, cab 1260. Phew!
Anyone who’s watched Stale’s regular grams filmed by the self-styled ‘Gimbal God’ will be familiar with this guy’s aerial awareness, but seeing him stomp these huge spins under the pressure of a live run was something to behold.
"Several of the big names appeared to be struggling on a course designed for maximum head-fuckery"
Mark McMorris, meanwhile, was continuing his remarkable comeback story straight out of a Hollywood movie. Having suffered two horrific injuries in the last two seasons, the Canadian was showing no ill effects in PyeongChang, one-upping Stale’s score in run 2 with some monster airs through the kickers including a switch backside 12, frontside triple cork 1440 and a frankly insane backside triple cork 1620. A few of his landings were not quite as clean as his usual immaculate standard, which left a chink of opportunity – just a chink, mind – for someone to go one better in the final round.
Who, though, could possibly step up? By the end of run two, several of the big names appeared to be struggling on a course designed for maximum head-fuckery. It’s not that big tricks weren’t being thrown down – there were ‘rewind’ moments on almost every run – but between the shifting winds, the unusual layout and the sheer challenge of putting down more than half a dozen technical tricks in a row, something seemed to be going wrong each time.
Red Gerard in particular appeared to be struggling with the wind. The 17-year-old from Colorado weighs about as much as an empty packet of crisps, and while his line through the top section was perhaps the most creative of anyone, he was visibly pumping for speed through the jumps – resulting in a couple of spills in runs 1 and 2.
Max Parrot, meanwhile, was fighting his own demons – primarily in the form of a frontside triple 14 which he failed twice to get round, resulting in some painful looking slams. His rail game, however – often cited as a weakness for this Big Air king – appeared to be on point. If he could pull it together for run 3 then he had a clear shot of a podium and perhaps even gold.
"Toots was riding like a man who knew he had one last chance at glory"
And what of the favourite, Marcus Kleveland? With edge control and an ability to improvise that mere mortals can only dream of, the 18-year-old ninja from Norway appeared tailor-made for this most imaginative of slopestyle courses. While he was making mincemeat of the crazy jib section, however, he had so far failed to reach his full potential.
At this point, it has to be said that some of the best things in a slopestyle competition happen after a rider has fallen, and the Olympic final was no exception, with numerous casual butter tricks off the final knuckle and even a floaty backside 180 from Stale on show to stoke out the purists. Kleveland, though, took the core cred prize early on with this outrageous 180 shifty at the end of run 2:
As we took a deep breath for the final round, it was anyone’s to win but the smart money was on McLovin. That said, his compatriot Seb Toots didn’t appear to have got the memo. Having been a major force in slopestyle snowboarding for much of the last decade, this will probably be Toots’ final Olympic appearance, and he was riding like a man who knew he had one last chance at glory. With Stale having fallen and provisionally sitting in silver, Seb dropped in and began to string together what looked like the run of his life – only to sketch out on the very last hit.
This was how that felt:
It was at this point that PyeongChang got its Sage moment…
Red Gerard. Remember him? The American youngster was clearly having the time of his (short) life, smiling at the top and hugging his coaching team as he adjusted that trademark ‘over one shoulder’ bib and prepared to go again. Despite those aforementioned speed issues, Red had already won hearts amongst the snowboard community thanks to his distinct style and eye for a creative line – not least a beauty of a frontside air over the goal post.
"Whether it was the wind or the wax, Red found himself hurtling at speed towards the first of the jumps"
And then, from somewhere, he found the speed. Whether it was the wind or the wax, as he emerged from his jib line (that included a cab 50-50 backside 3 out, 50-50 boardslide 270 out, a backside 3 nose tap and a frontside 5 hand drag) he found himself hurtling at speed towards the first of the jumps.
Switch backside 1260. Boom.
Frontside double cork 1080 off the side transition. Stomped.
Backside triple cork 1440. Wallop!
It was a magical run that handed him a score of 87.16 and provisional gold.
Carlos Garcia Knight – the surprise package from New Zealand – was up next, but couldn’t improve on his previous best score of 78.6.
And then there were three: Mark McMorris, Marcus Kleveland, and Max Parrot.
McMorris came out swinging with a silky smooth top section, but his attempt to up the ante with back to back triples was ultimately unsuccessful – he would have to settle for silver at best.
"This felt like a battle between the T-1000 and plucky young John Connor"
- Red Gerard (USA) - 87.16
- Max Parrot (CAN) - 86.00
- MARK McMorris (CAN) - 85.20
- Ståle Sandbech (NOR) - 81.01
- Carlos Garcia Knight (NZ) - 78.60
- Marcus Kleveland (NOR) - 77.76
- Tyler Nicholson (CAN) - 76.41
- Torgeir Bergrem (NOR) - 75.80
- Niklas Mattsson (SWE) - 74.71
- Seppe Smits (BEL) - 69.03
- Sebastien Toutant (CAN) - 61.08
- Mons Roisland (NOR) - DNS
Next came the mercurial Kleveland. Could he put it all together at the last attempt? Again, his board control through the most technical of rail lines was extra-terrestrial, but sadly for Team Norway it fell apart on the jumps.
Which left one man: Max Parrot. Max’s upright style and quiet – almost robotic – ruthlessness have not endeared him to everybody, so this felt like a battle between the T-1000 and plucky young John Connor. His run was suitably machine-like, including a hardway lipslide 270 out, backside 3 on to 180 out, cab 180 to 360 out, rodeo (nicely laid out we might add), cab 12, double cork 10 and backside triple cork 1440 to finish.
The judges took their time. Max’s run had presented them with a dilemma: should they reward what was arguably a more technical – but more orthodox – line, or the kid who fully embraced the unusual transitions this course had offered?
As Max’s score popped up (second place!) it was clear which way they had gone. As in Sochi four years ago, creativity was the order of the day. And so Red Gerard – the lone American in a sea of Norwegian and Canadian talent – had just pulled off what British commentator Ed Leigh described as “one of the biggest heists in snowboarding history."