Mark McMorris, the 19-year-old snowboard wunderkind from Regina, delivered on all his prodigious promise and more at X Games on Saturday, easily outdistancing rival Shaun White and winning his second consecutive gold medal in the slopestyle contest. And he did it with the best-ever score in the event's history at X Games.
"I proved myself the way I wanted to and I'm just a happy camper," McMorris told X Games producer ESPN on Saturday after his victory.
With the performance, McMorris firmly establishes himself as the de facto favourite for a gold medal at the Sochi, Russia Winter Olympics 13 months from now, when slopestyle makes its debut at the games. The popular event, which could surpass the snowboard halfpipe in attention, features a series of rails and jumps, with riders ripping down a course of generally 650 metres.
And while McMorris was the headline story of this year's Winter X Games, the carnival in Aspen was a success for a number of Canadian athletes. Max Parrot, an 18-year-old from Bromont, Que., won a major big air contest a week ago in Switzerland and on Saturday in Aspen scored a surprise silver in slopestyle, Parrot's 90-point run second only to McMorris's record 98 points.
White – the 26-year-old who is the most famous contest snowboarder in the world, with two Olympics gold medals in the halfpipe – was fifth in slopestyle on Saturday with 71 points, in an event he had dominated last decade.
"Canada's really putting together a gnarly team for the Olympics," said an X Games announcer on Saturday as Parrot delivered his silver-medal run.
Earlier this week, Rolling Stone magazine, which has twice featured White on its cover, asked: "Is Mark McMorris the next Shaun White?" The young man from Regina answered, for now, with an emphatic yes. With his second straight gold in slopestyle, McMorris is the first to pull off the feat since White, who won three straight slopestyle golds at X Games in the mid-2000s.
White, who aims to win his sixth straight gold in the halfpipe on Sunday, waited to congratulation McMorris on Saturday.
"I'm going to let this soak in and hopefully turn it into a motivator," said White of his fifth-place showing and the upcoming Olympics.
Among other Canadians at X Games, Spencer O'Brien of North Vancouver on Saturday overcame early jitters and won bronze in women's snowboard slopestyle, delivering a strong result at X Games after several years of struggles in Aspen. The event was won by American Jamie Anderson, who also won last year.
On Friday, in women's ski halfpipe, gold favourite Rosalind Groenewoud from Squamish, B.C. took silver, the 23-year-old finishing behind 19-year-old Maddie Bowman of the U.S. Canada also won bronze, as 20-year-old Megan Gunning from Calgary returned to the X Games podium after a silver three years ago at age 17.
On Sunday, Canada has another gold medal favourite in contention – women's ski slopestyle, Kaya Turski of Montreal, who has won three consecutive X Games golds in the event and looks to add a fourth.
McMorris, who has a talent to ride with preternatural calm – riding for "fun," basically – secured his second-consecutive slopestyle gold on Saturday on his first run with a score of 94.66. On his third run, on what was a victory lap, with the gold assured, McMorris rode an incredibly smooth run punctuated by a trick called a backside triple cork 1440, which is a kaleidoscope of spins and flips – three off axis spins with four full rotations of 360 degrees. It is a trick that McMorris was the first-ever person to land, two years ago, and one he pulled off on Saturday. He is no longer alone in it, however, as it is now in the repertoire of the best riders, including Parrot.
McMorris also won silver in the big air contest on Friday night, an event he won last year. The big air winner was Norwegian Torstein Horgmo, a friend of McMorris's, who was effusive in defeat, telling ESPN about Horgmo landing a variation of a triple cork never before done in competition: "Torstein is a boss. What can I say. He just absolutely changed the game of snowboarding and I'm very, very glad I could be a part of it." Horgmo on Thursday failed to qualify for the slopestyle finals, as did Sebastien Toutant, a 20-year-old from Quebec who won slopestyle gold at X Games two years ago.