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McMorris pays for wild ways at the podium

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Monday, February 12, 2018 – Page B3

PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA -- If you took him at his word, Mark McMorris was pleased to win a second consecutive Olympic bronze medal for Canada on Sunday.

"I'm happy to get a medal," McMorris said. "It's pretty cool."

But, by "pretty cool," his tone suggested he meant "incredibly disappointing."

As he schlumpfed through the mixed-zone afterward, McMorris's shoulders sagged. The cold started to get into him. By the end, when the volunteers started lining him up for selfies, he couldn't manage a smile.

He and teammate Max Parrot took the two secondary spots on the podium. Twenty years ago, the pair would have got a parade back home. But things have changed in the Canadian Olympic program.

For some people, only gold will do. McMorris is one of them. It's more than that - he's got the star quality to be a darling of the Games. That possibility evaporated on Sunday and McMorris's aspect told you that he knew it.

It is hard to appreciate on television how insane snowboard slopestyle is. A screen flattens out the course and makes it seem manageable.

In person, you see it for what it is - a suicide run. The competitors jump backward, blind and upside-down off small cliffs.

When they appear suddenly to the crowd at the final jump, they come over the lip as if they've been thrown out a window.

In a sport so risky, McMorris, 24, stands out as the wildest of the wild men.

In Sochi, he competed with a broken rib. Two years ago, he broke his femur in competition - which is hard to do even if you're trying.

Just 11 months back, while goofing around in the B.C. backcountry with friends, he came off a jump wrong and pranged himself into a tree.

His injuries were initially thought to be life-threatening - broken jaw, arm, pelvis and ribs; a ruptured spleen and a collapsed lung. The average person would probably be sitting at home watching this event in a wheelchair.

But McMorris is not average.

That's his personal brand as well as his cross to bear.

During Sunday's men's final, the Pyeongchang course was beset by unpredictable winds.

One guy coming down the mountain got scooped up as he launched and was thrown off balance. The next guy got total calm and could fully commit.

As such, the conditions tended to reward caution.

Parrot went hard on his first run and went down harder.

He was planning to try something, in his words, "easy" and "safe" on his second run. But then Parrot got a load of McMorris going full kamikaze down the course.

"I saw Mark doing two triples [flips] in a row and I was, like, 'Oh my God. I can't go for a safe run, no way.' " Parrot went hard again and fell, again.

On his third run, he eased right back. In doing so, he leapfrogged McMorris in the standings.

McMorris? He went for it each time. He stuck it on his second run, but was a little lubbardly in the compulsories at the top of the course. On his third, he got all the small things right, but stumbled on the final jump. It was one of those days.

McMorris knew how sounding bitter would come off and was working hard to avoid it.

This time around it was the words, rather than the tone, that told the story. The tone was upbeat. The words were ... well, you decide: "I'm stoked I went for it instead of playing it safe," McMorris said. "But, then you see Max play it safe and he got second, which is insane to me. But it's all good."

I doubt it's all good. I'm fairly certain it's nowhere close to good.

Another part of the snowboarder ethos is that you don't begrudge the man beside you because he's taking the same risks. Not out loud anyway.

The fourth of four Canadians in the final, Sébastien Toutant, was bitterly disappointed after missing the jump on his final run - "Probably good enough for first place," he said.

After a bit of venting, Toutant seemed to realize he was raining on his teammates' parade.

"They're all good homies, so I'm hyped for them," he said as he walked away. (The Laguna Beach dialect works even better with a Quebecois accent.)

These were Canada's first medals of this Olympics and so earn a special place in the ranking of what will be many more to come.

Parrot seemed genuinely pleased with a silver, if a bit overawed by the occasion.

"I am on a cloud," he said.

Then it digressed into a conversation about the weather.

McMorris was the last man through - trailing behind the 17year-old, 116-pound American pipsqueak, Redmond Gerard, who'd won gold. You want an early favourite for the star turn here in South Korea? Gerard's the guy.

McMorris must have noticed as well.

Suddenly, the injuries seemed worse than unfortunate. They were beginning to look like poor planning.

Before he'd broken his leg in 2016, McMorris judged himself "pretty ahead of the curve" in snowboarding. While he was gone, the curve caught up. He could no longer assume that if he stuck his jumps, he'd win, because now other people were doing the same jumps as him.

Doubt had begun to creep in. As McMorris put it, "thoughts start to go in your head."

Before - no thoughts. Now - thoughts. After Sunday's race - a whole bunch of thoughts.

The backcountry injury - one that tends to get laughed off as Mark-being-Mark in the sport - got a particular mention.

Someone asked him about the lowest point.

"Not being able to move, really," McMorris said. "Not being able to talk. That sucked. It's just from one stupid mistake. I wish I could take that back every day of my life."

I'm sure that's true. I'm also sure he has never wished it more than he did on Sunday.

If you wipe away the heedlessness and the resulting injuries, McMorris still might not have won gold here. That's the person he is, and you never can predict these things.

However, it would allow McMorris to feel he hadn't put himself in a position to lose. He didn't say that afterward. Not exactly. But you could see him thinking it.

Associated Graphic

Mark McMorris of Canada competes in the men's snowboarding slopestyle final on Sunday. Countryman Max Parrot won the silver medal while McMorris took bronze.


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