Bruce Arthur: Mark McMorris had to earn his way back to the Olympics — and the podium
Regina snowboarder completes comeback from coma to earn second straight slopestyle bronze.
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PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA—Every sport is about possibility. Some are also about having to swallow your fear. Slopestyle is snowboarding that isn’t quite the third-floor apartment fall of the halfpipe, but it’s about pushing to the edge, or as close as you dare, with the chance to fall. That’s how you can be great.
Canada sent four boys down the hill and into the air at the Olympic slopestyle final Sunday morning, and only one of them was Mark McMorris of Regina, Sask. We could sweep the podium, we said. They couldn’t all win, but they could all lose.
McMorris entered the final of three runs in the gold-medal position. He was passed by American Redmond Gerard, the 115-pound 17-year-old, the future. McMorris needed one more big run. But he fell on his final jump, and fell to silver.
Fellow Canadian Max Parrot, who fell on his first two runs, was the one who threw down a monster, on his last chance. Parrot took silver, and McMorris fell to bronze, same as in Sochi, when he competed with a broken rib. On the final runs, when it came to the last chance, it was others who beat McMorris. That’s the game.
The course was an artificial paradise of valleys and peaks, and that was about right. Canadian Tyler Nicholson fell in his wobbly first run, sliding on his chest. Canuck Sebastien Toutant landed on his posterior on his initial try. McMorris laid down a safe, spectacular run, and Parrot crashed out on a jump. After the first runs, McMorris was third; Parrot fifth; Nicholson and Toutant ninth and 10th.
You get three, though. You get three chances to be great. Nicholson’s second run was a 76.41, good for third; Toutant slipped. Parrot fell again.
And McMorris put down a huge run, full of solid rails and skyscraping jumps. It was awesome, and he received an 85.20, good for first by a good mile. He wasn’t afraid. It just didn’t hold.
But that can’t be a disappointment, can it? McMorris is from the flattest part of the country, and his story has been told so many times that the injuries from the March 2017 accident, when he hit a tree while backcountry snowboarding near Whistler, B.C., almost feel perfunctory, a laundry list: 17 broken bones, including a shattered left arm, a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, and a fractured jaw, which required surgery; a collapsed left lung, which required two surgeries; a ruptured spleen. He was put in a medically induced coma.
It is legend, now. But comebacks only feel inevitable when they are complete. All the parts of the comeback become furniture in the inspirational room, and it becomes a story rather than something vital and real: the blood he vomited onto the snow after awakening from the crash when he wasn’t diagnosing which bones were broken; the sublimated panic of his brother Craig and friends — Brandon Kelly, a cinematographer, Erin Hogue, a photographer, Torstein Horgmo, a Norwegian pro snowboarder, who built him a protective nest in the snow — and the relief when the helicopter came out of the sky.
But the point was, everything was fixable. He didn’t die. And while it’s easy to turn his recovery into the montage of a daytime movie, McMorris had to earn his way back here with every squat, every skateboard ride, every physical therapy appointment, every day that he knit his body back together. He rebuilt himself.
And if there was fear, it never showed. When McMorris got back on his snowboard for the first time, he called it the best feeling on earth, and you could see the joy. And while he says his body can feel beaten, creaky, older than its listed age of 24, he is possibility.
So is Parrot, at 23. Canada came into this final with a chance to be the young kings of their world, in a way that Canadian sports don’t usually line up. We don’t often have a chance to sweep podiums. Before the final, Toutant was asked why Canada was so good at this, and he said, “We’re just so hungry. We just want to snowboard as much as we can. We push ourselves together. We’re a really good team, you know? Darcy (Sharpe) and Mikey (Ciccarelli) are two riders that didn’t make the team, but those are good riders that make the final every contest, too.
“So it’s kind of like unfair a little bit for us, as a country. But I think we’re just happy to be all together, and we just push ourselves to get better and better, and we use it as motivation.”
They couldn’t all win — it turns out none of them did — but McMorris and Parrot gave Canada their first medals of these Games. Could it be a disappointment? Maybe. But less than a year ago McMorris nearly died and said that everything after that was a gift, and had to be fun. And less than a year later he flew in the air and stayed on the rails, snowboarded with brilliance and joy. He fell, yes. With gold on the line, he fell.
But he got up. That’s this sport, and that’s life. You hit valleys, because everybody does. And you try to find peaks.