'Feels like a gold medal to me': Mark McMorris wins Canada's first medal in Sochi
Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, February 8, 2014 2:11AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, February 8, 2014 11:11AM EST
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Mark McMorris wasn't going to let a broken rib derail his Olympic plan.
The Canadian snowboarder needed acupuncture, massage therapy and plenty of rehab exercises to get back in form after crashing at the X Games late last month. He knew he would have to fight through the pain and impress the judges to reach the podium in slopestyle's Olympic debut.
He did just that Saturday, nailing his second run to win bronze and give Canada its first medal of the Sochi Games.
"I would have loved to be in the gold-medal position 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," said McMorris, a former X Games champion who was touted as a gold-medal contender in the lead-up to Sochi.
American Sage Kotsenburg won gold with a score of 93.50. He was just ahead of Norway's Staale Sandbech, who took silver with a 91.75.
McMorris, who scored 88.75, had to work with a team of specialists and therapists just to get to the starting gate. Once he had medical clearance and knew he wouldn't damage the injury any further, McMorris was determined to succeed.
"It didn't matter how much pain it was going to take," said coach Adam Burwell. "All he knew was he wasn't going to hurt himself anymore. He just needed to ride through it and he did it."
McMorris took it easy on the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park course at the start of the week. A solid training run left him feeling hopeful but a mediocre showing in the qualification round raised questions.
The course, which includes an intimidating mix of rails, ledges and jumps that competitors navigate on their way down, was challenging. McMorris described the jumps as "obnoxiously tall" and the impact from landing made him grimace.
He managed to crack the top four in the semifinal Saturday morning just to get into the 12-man final, but a disappointing opening run put the pressure on for his final run.
McMorris delivered a technically strong effort on the rail portion of the course before stepping up on the bottom half. He landed his trademark backside triple cork 1440 -- an eye-popping move that includes three off axis-flips while spinning four times -- with his final jump.
"Two triple corks weren't the hammer today," McMorris said. "It was something else."
The hammer turned out to be the "Holy Crail," a move that Kotsenburg debuted in the final. He got the judges' attention by spinning and rotating 4 1/2 times while managing to grab the board behind his back.
"The course is a canvas and your board is a paintbrush," said American coach Mike Jankowski. "Sage will do it his way and he will make it look good. He's the spice master. He's putting his punctuation on every trick."
The rib injury didn't hold McMorris back. The judges just seemed to be more impressed with Kotsenburg's creativity and Sandbech's flair.
"It's hard to wrap your head around what they really wanted to see but yeah, I'm happy," McMorris said. "It's a really good day for me."
It was a difficult two-week stretch for the 20-year-old Regina native. All the hard work paid off in that second run.
"Landing that last jump was a testament to what they got me back to and how fast they did it," McMorris said of the team who helped him.
His run was followed by an agonizing wait. One by one, the 10 remaining riders tried to earn better point totals.
Shielding his eyes from the blinding sun on a glorious winter afternoon, McMorris followed the action on the large scoreboard beside the finish area.
"I was just praying to not get bumped down," he said.
His score left him in second place until Sandbech knocked him down to third. McMorris was still positioned there when the final rider -- Canadian teammate Maxence Parrot -- moved into the start area.
The reigning X Games champion delivered a strong run that McMorris as sure would be enough to push him off the podium.
Parrot, from Bromont, Que., looked pleased with his effort. A disappointed McMorris started to walk away but was talked into staying in the area just in case.
The tension was palpable over the long minute before the judges' scores were posted. With the bronze hanging in the balance, the results finally made it to the screen.
Parrot dropped his head in disappointment. McMorris had his bronze after all.
"It was like truthfully the most insane roller-coaster ever," McMorris said of his week.
The pockets of flag-waving Canadian fans at the near-capacity venue let out a roar when the results were displayed. McMorris returned to the finish area and celebrated with the other medallists before hugging his teammate.
Parrot's disappointment was etched on his face. He felt he had done enough to reach the podium but knew the point totals were out of his hands.
"I was really stoked with my run and I thought it would have scored higher than this," he said. "But you know, it happens -- not just at the Olympics, it happens at a lot of contests that the judges (don't) really like your run."
Montreal's Sebastien Toutant finished ninth. Charles Reid of Mont-Tremblant, Que., was eliminated in the semifinal round after finishing 14th.
American Shaun White was expected to be a contender in the event but he pulled out earlier in the week and will instead focus on the halfpipe. Toutant and Parrot criticized the move on Twitter before later deleting their tweets.
That story took some of the focus away from McMorris, who was comfortable talking about his rib injury but didn't want to dwell on it.
The broken rib is in his lower back and he said a "ton of muscle" had tightened up around it, essentially acting as a cast.
McMorris worked to loosen things up so that he could become as mobile as possible to do the tricks he wanted while absorbing impacts. Massage therapy helped as did regular rehab exercises in a pool.
McMorris eventually moved on to gym work and worked himself back into shape. He was uneven through the week but got the run he wanted when it counted.
"It's history and it was such a great day for snowboarding," McMorris said. "It's such a great day for slopestyle.
"It's really cool."