On the day they carried another snowboarder off the mountain – Finland’s Merika Enne, who crashed on her final jump on the slopestyle course during Tuesday’s practice session – the competitors on both the male and female side of the newest Olympic sport played down the risks of competing at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.
Enne’s injury – a suspected concussion – came a day after Norwegian medal hope Torstein Horgmo broke his collarbone, which forced him out of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and led to questions about whether the slopestyle course provided too much risk in a sport that’s called “extreme” for a reason.
“It’s better for everyone that the course changed,” said Canada’s Sebastien Toutant, who memorably suggested he put on his “Canadian flying squirrel suit” on the first practice day because the jumps were so big “it was like jumping out of a building.”
Since then, the designers have modified the course to the satisfaction of most – but not – all of the competitors. The consensus Tuesday was the snow conditions were excellent, the safety component improving.
“They put some wax on the rails, so it’s not as slick,” Toutant said, “and the jumps are still really high, but they made the transition to the jumps way smoother. I still think they could cut the jumps down a little bit, so it makes a smoother transition.”
“It’s not dangerous at all, I don’t think,” added Canadian teammate Mark McMorris, who will compete in the event less than two weeks after breaking a rib at the Winter X Games. “Snowboarding’s dangerous. Crossing the street is, too.
“The course is definitely different than a usual course, but it rides well. I’m doing the tricks I want to do, so I have no complaints.”
Normally, it would take about six weeks for his injury to completely heal, but because these are the Olympics, McMorris – who was one of the medal favourites – is forging ahead.
“It’s still broken, it’s still painful and I know I’m going to have to ride through pain,” the Regina native said, “but just to get a shot at trying to do what I want to do is the important part.”
Enne’s injury occurred after she failed to land the final jump of her training run, crashed into the snow and tumbled onto her head. She completed her run, but then was carried away on a stretcher, past reporters assembled in the mixed zone.
Czech snowboarder Sarka Pancochova said: “For women, the big jumps are a little too big. … For women to do their best, then a little smaller jumps are better. It’s not that I’m scared. I’ve been hitting [expletive] big jumps at X Games for years.”
But Canada’s Spencer O’Brien suggested while there are “always definitely concerns about safety, the last five or six years, the progression of building [courses] has gotten so good.
“The way the jumps are built, they’re getting bigger, but they’re actually getting safer. The builders are progressing along with the riders and the rider level,” she said.
“This style of jump, it’s a step-down style, so you’re kind of falling out of the air a bit more, so you’re going to get a bit more impact. It’s just a different style of building … but everyone’s used to adapting to new courses, so I think everybody’s just taking a little bit to get into it.”
Slopestyle snowboarding is making its Olympic debut here and it has drawn, among others, U.S. star Shaun White, the face of action sports around the world, to the event.
When asked about the dangers inherent in the course, White replied: “I’d have to say there’s some truth to it. There’s a bit of danger every time you step on one of these courses. This one may have a little more than the others, but it’s all about managing that [risk] and getting out there and trying to learn the course and figure it out.”
Another American, Sage Kotsenburg, described the improvements made this week by course designers as “awesome.”
“The first day, it was a little bit poppy on the jumps and it was pretty icy on the rails, but that’s pretty protocol. We show up. We ride the course for the first day. We do our thing. Then, we have a meeting and give them feedback,” he said.
“A lot of people were pretty freaked out because it’s big. It is a big course. But it’s no bigger than the last jump in X Games, and we were just at X Games [last month in Aspen, Colo.]. If you had the mindset of coming here and thinking it was a mellow course at the Olympics, you’re wrong – because it’s definitely a man-sized course.”
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