Mark McMorris was so certain he hadn't won a medal in slopestyle on Saturday he started walking away convinced he'd finished fourth. Then an official told him to wait and see.
When the final scores went up, McMorris had hung on for a bronze, giving Canada its first medal of the Sochi Olympics and making history by being among the first medal winners of the sport at any Olympics. Canadians Max Parrot finished fifth while Sébastien Toutant came ninth.
"All smiles," McMorris said after the race. "This is truthfully a dream come true."
It sure wasn't easy. McMorris arrived in Sochi as one of the favorites to win along with American superstar Shaun White. His chances increased after White dropped out of the event earlier this week, prompting some nasty remarks by McMorris' teammates.
But McMorris was still feeling the effects of a broken rib he'd suffered two weeks ago at the X Games. That meant that almost every time he flew off a ramp, bump or rail and hit the ground, pain surged through his back. A steady regime of acupuncture, pool training, gym work and massages got him to a point where only the hard landings hurt.
Then there were the jitters. The 20-year-old McMorris acknowledged feeling overwhelmed at first in Sochi and choking during qualifying runs this week. He barely made it in to Saturday's final, doing just enough on his very last qualifying run to get in. He fell on the first of two runs during finals, leaving him ninth out of 12 riders. It all came down to one last ride and McMorris put together a spectacular effort, hitting two triple spins, something few others were even attempting.
"It was an amazing feeling," he said of the run, believing it was good enough for first or second. "When I saw the score, yeah, I thought it would be higher," he added. "I guess two triple corks weren't the hammer today, it was something else. It's hard to wrap your head around what [the judges] really wanted to see. But I'm happy. It's a really good day for me."
The only rider who could have put McMorris out of a medal was 19-year-old Parrot. He had posted the highest score during qualifying meaning he was the last rider down the hill during the final. He too had a poor first run in the final, placing seventh. But Parrot also put together what looked like a flawless second run. It was so good McMorris walked away convinced he'd been knocked out of the medals by his teammate.
"I thought, 'Yeah, I'm done. I'm not on the podium'," McMorris recalled. "I was about to just walk out and a guy was like, 'Wait you don't know'. I was like 'I'm pretty sure I know'." When he saw Parrot's fifth-place score, he went over to congratulate his teammate and then he started celebrating.
"Yeah I would have loved to be in the gold medal position," he said. "But with what I've been through in the last two weeks, just standing on the podium in general feels like a gold medal to me. It's a huge, huge sigh of relief."
Parrot said he couldn't understand the judging, convinced style was being awarded more than technique. He felt his final run was good enough for a medal position.
"I was really stoked on my run and I thought it would score really higher than this," he said.
He added that at other events on the circuit riders meet with judges beforehand and get a sense of what they are looking for. But that didn't happen at the Olympics, something he said was a mistake.
Parrot also said there was no disappointment that the Canadians didn't do better. Canada was the only country with three athletes in the final and there had been talk of a possible sweep of the medals.
"Just to have three Canadians in the final is pretty awesome," he said. "I think we all did our best."
"I do think there's some work to be done on judging…Especially with this contest." He added that he wasn't trying to use judging as an excuse for not getting a medal but that most of the marks were too low, including the ones given to McMorris.
For McMorris the thrill of winning a medal at the first Olympic slopestyle competition began to sink in when he was asked about his roots in Saskatchewan. He grew up in Regina and took up skateboarding at the age of four before trying his hand at snowboarding during family ski trips to Lake Louise in Alberta. That was followed by years of travelling back and forth to the mountains to hone his skills, thanks to support from his parents (his father Don is a provincial cabinet minister).
"Now I'm on an Olympic podium," he said shaking his head. "I'm from Saskatchewan. It doesn't make sense."
American Sage Kotsenburg won gold with a score of 93.50. Norway's Staale Sandbech took the silver with a 91.75.