An hour northeast of Regina, Mission Ridge Winter Park has one ski lift, 89 metres of elevation, and a terrain park where kids practise tricks to emulate their X Games heroes. In Quebec, an hour or so northwest of the Montreal suburb of L'Assomption, Val Saint-Côme is a little bigger – three lifts, 300 metres of vertical and two terrain parks.
In a country with some of the best mountains and snow on earth – Whistler Blackcomb boasts a dizzying 1,550 metres from peak to village – it is Val Saint-Côme and Mission Ridge that have incubated two young men who have become sudden stars in snowboarding. There is the realistic promise of Olympic gold in 2014 for Quebec's Sebastien Toutant, 19, and Saskatchewan's Mark McMorris, 18, and they have the potential to rank among the sport's greats.
On Saturday night in Aspen, Colo., at the Winter X Games, Toutant and McMorris return to the venue where they shot to the top of snowboarding a year ago. In 2011, the two Canadians won gold and silver, respectively, in slopestyle, an event newly welcomed by the Olympics for 2014 in Sochi, Russia, and surging in popularity.
Toutant and McMorris are two of about three dozen Canadians at the X Games, where Canada is already winning events. On Thursday, Montreal's Kaya Turski, 23, won her third consecutive gold in women's slopestyle, which will also be a new event at Sochi.
This is the 16th year for the Winter X Games and it comes just a week after the death of Sarah Burke. Pioneer of her sport, Burke won four golds at the X Games in skiing in the halfpipe and her absence is deeply felt. On Thursday night she was memorialized in a tribute, broadcast on ESPN.
The risky spectacle of the X Games has become big business, and Toutant and McMorris are in the centre of it. They are winning the biggest contests and are backed by the largest corporate names in action sports. Their emergence comes as snowboarding and slopestyle – a series of big jumps over a 700-metre course – hit prime time. ESPN had previously broadcast slopestyle in the afternoon, and Saturday night's show could crack one million viewers, which is more than any NHL game broadcast this season in the United States.
“If you look at the Olympics, 2010, Vancouver, snowboarding in the halfpipe was the second-most watched sport,” Toutant says. “And I'm sure that slopestyle in Sochi is going to be such a big one.”
On Saturday night McMorris delivered his second gold in two days, winning the slopestyle, with Toutant in fourth. On Friday night, McMorris won gold in the big air contest, and Toutant took bronze. McMorris likely will win male athlete of X Games, which Toutant won last year. McMorris moves on next week to the British Columbia interior, the backcountry at Baldface Lodge near Nelson. Travis Rice stages a contest called "Supernatural," a jump-filled slopestyle-like course on a steep slope, with the aim to crown the world's best all-around snowboarder.
Toutant and McMorris have not emerged from an established Canadian development system, like the various levels of youth hockey, or even the network of ski clubs for alpine racing.
McMorris first snowboarded on a family trip to Lake Louise, Alta., when he was 5. There were annual trips west from Regina, and also to nearby Mission Ridge. When McMorris was 11, he and his brother Craig, then 13, became founding riders on Saskatchewan's snowboard team. By 15, in 2009, McMorris had made it to the slopestyle final at the prestigious Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships, where, the same year, Toutant took silver at 16.
Now sponsored by the likes of Burton Snowboards and Red Bull – snowboarding's two single biggest names – McMorris keeps a relaxed tact. At a chalet in Breckenridge, Colo., early on a Friday morning in December, before heading out to train, McMorris's curly hair pokes out from under a blue Red Bull ball cap. He doesn't have a coach, but has a quiet business savvy, a handle on how he wants his career to unfold. It is a foundation centred on his older brother, who is also a pro rider.
“I would never be close to where I am without Craig, just because when you have somebody to ride with everyday, that pushes you like a brother, that's the big help,” McMorris says. “Because if they're doing it, you got to be able to do it too.”
He has had a looser style since he started competing. His Team Sask coach, Russ Davies, was more older brother than task master.
“He wasn't ever that coach” – adopting a sharp tone – “‘Let's try this trick.' He was just” – taking a mellow voice – “‘See if you can follow me.' And we'd rip as fast as we could. He was super good because he never pushed snowboarding on us. It was so laid-back.”
Easygoing, yes, but it belies McMorris's competitive instincts. Last March, he pulled off a trick no rider ever had: a “backside triple cork 1440,” three off-axis flips and four 360s. The feat was a huge hit with fans, the most viewed video of 2011 on Transworld Snowboarding's website. It scored him a spot in the biggest snowboard film ever made, Travis Rice's The Art of Flight.
Earlier, outside at 8 a.m., it's minus-20 in the Colorado high country, a waning crescent moon hangs in the pale blue sky above a peak. The mountain isn't open yet, but Chair 5 runs for early-morning training ahead of a Dew Tour competition, where several days later Toutant will place second and McMorris seventh.
Toutant is among the few outside. At last year's X Games, beyond gold in slopestyle, he scored a record 97 in the semi-finals, the best score in an event that Olympic gold medalist Shaun White had won five times previously. Toutant also won silver in big air, and was named top male athlete.
“I never thought I was going to be pro one day, even when I started competing,” Toutant says on the double chair. “It's been my passion since I was nine years old, to be riding all the time, even if it's eight o'clock in the morning and I'm freezing my ass off.”
Canada has never produced a top male snowboarder, a name like Shaun White or Craig Kelly in the United States, or Norway's Terje Haakonsen. North Vancouver's Devun Walsh is little known outside snowboarding but revered by riders. In competition, Canada has just five medals at four Olympics, and not one has come in the premiere showcase of halfpipe. When White and his long, curly, red hair won his second Olympic gold in the pipe at the Vancouver Games it was one of the main attractions on NBC in an evening broadcast that was watched by 30 million people in the United States, the first time in six years any show had topped American Idol.
Now slopestyle ascends in prominence. Off the biggest jumps, the best riders fly upward of 40 metres through the air.
Winter X Games, owned by cable TV sports giant ESPN, was started in 1997 and last year attracted 115,000 spectators, double that of a decade ago, just as TV ratings have doubled. It is this growth, and the young audience, that draws the corporate dollars that underwrite events and the young stars. While many “pros” aren't millionaires, the biggest names like White and film stars such as Rice make seven figures.
“It's the credibility they bring to a brand, and the influence they have,” says Jaimeson Keegan, agent for Toutant and president of Seattle's Superheroes Management. “Action sports is one of the most direct ways to reach that elusive under-25 age group.”
X Games comes of age, in a way, this week. Burke's tragic death cannot be understated, a deep cut through a close-knit community that will remain a ragged scar for some time. Death, while rare, looms, and injury (on Burke's list was a broken back) is common.
McMorris's mother, Cindy, is an operating nurse, and she worries.
“He's doing what he loves,” she says. “You hear about avalanches and people dying. It's a worry, especially when he's overseas. It's not like I can get there in two hours. And being a nurse as well, you see head injuries. But that can happen in a car accident.
“It's an amazing opportunity,” she adds, “especially coming from the Prairies, being a flatlander. He's living a dream. I just keep my fingers crossed and pray. The success is wonderful. But as a mom, you just want him to be safe and healthy.”