From a tiny ski hill northeast of Regina, barely a blip on the vast prairie, Mark McMorris has catapulted to a spotlight never before reached by a Canadian snowboarder, and this weekend the 19-year-old aims to cement his standing among his sport's greats.
The curly-haired young man comes from prairie roots, an unlikely foundation to become one of the world's great snowboarders. It started at one-ski-lift Mission Ridge Winter Park in Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask. His mom Cindy is an operating-room nurse; his father Don has been in politics for more than a dozen years and since 2007 has served as the Saskatchewan Minister of Health.
Mark McMorris emerged as a snowboard prodigy in his mid-teens. A year ago, he established himself by winning two golds at X Games in Aspen, Colo., the first rider to do so in a single year since another curly-haired snowboarder, famous redhead Shaun White, 26. This week at X Games in Aspen – which begin on Thursday – McMorris arrives as a star attraction. The hype machine of ESPN, owner of the X Games juggernaut of extreme sports, has in part promoted the event as a showdown – McMorris versus White.
But McMorris, backed by the biggest corporate names in the sport – Burton Snowboards and Red Bull – is also making a mark beyond the klieg lights of the contest circuit, which White has never moved beyond. McMorris has been taken under the wing of snowboarding's living legend, Terje Haakonsen, the 38-year-old Norwegian who was a halfpipe star in the 1990s, boycotted snowboarding's debut at the Olympics, and forged a path into the deep backcountry, a snowboard film star who pulls off incredible feats on remote mountains.
The relationship between the two has been likened to that of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, the master and the star pupil.
Unlike Haakonsen, however, McMorris has his eyes squarely on the Olympics.
"It's my main goal for the next year," McMorris said of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. "Without a lot of people in Canada, I wouldn't be where I am. I feel it's the right thing to do."
First comes X Games, and it's going to be all about a trick few young men in the world can land – the backside triple cork 1440. The rider launches into the sky and flips off-axis three times while spinning four full rotations of 360 degrees.
McMorris was the first person to land it, in March of 2011, and then last year at X Games became the first to land it in competition, to win the big air contest. Now, McMorris aims to become the first rider to land the trick in a slopestyle contest, where riders navigate a series of rails and jumps. The event will make its Olympic debut next year, and McMorris is a favourite for gold.
There is tension between McMorris and White. McMorris is respectful, but not awed. In an interview with The Globe and Mail in December of 2011, McMorris said: "Shaun is just an unbelievable snowboarder but he could definitely represent snowboarding better. Just be way more cool. He's so lame. He's on his own page, he doesn't hang out with anybody but himself."
Then, last winter at X Games Europe in Tignes, France, White won gold in slopestyle, an event he used to dominate. A couple of years back, he undertook a comeback that culminated in the gold in France. McMorris took silver.
But White's run was questionable, and his top scores appeared to be undeserved. It underlined a long-standing criticism of White's success – reputation above performance. McMorris, in an interview with ESPN, was complimentary but critical. He said White "deserved to win," but added, "I think it was overwhelming for the judges to see him come back and do a run a lot of guys can do."
The promoted White-McMorris contest may fizzle. Qualifying for the slopestyle final takes place Thursday and the final is Saturday. McMorris's real rivals are much younger riders, such as Montreal's Sebastien Toutant, 20, who won gold in X Games slopestyle in 2011 and was fourth last year. Toutant – better known as Seb Toots – also can pull off the triple cork 1440.
The two young Canadians stand one and two – Toutant first and McMorris second – in the World Snowboarding Tour rankings, a more friendly rivalry that will likely extend to Sochi 13 months from now. In Aspen – and likely next year in Sochi – it likely could be a Canadian battle for gold in men's slopestyle.
McMorris marks a shift in the history of snowboarding. He is not a conventional athlete, and still eschews formal coaching; "There's no coach in the world that can do what I do on a snowboard," he said, without hubris. He laughs at hours of strength training in the gym, recently doing a parody video of the severity with which many athletes approach the road to the Olympics. But McMorris doesn't spurn the Games themselves.
Fifteen years ago, when snowboarding first arrived at the Olympics, in Japan, Haakonsen was the world's best halfpipe rider and already the biggest star of his sport. He boycotted, likening the International Olympic Committee to the mafia, calling IOC members "big-wigs [who] ride in limousines and stay in fancy hotels while the athletes live in barracks in the woods."
McMorris likens Haakonsen to Wayne Gretzky. Among their encounters was a backcountry contest last year in the British Columbia interior, where McMorris, then 18, struggled in the deep snow. Haakonsen made the leap from contests to the realm that is the true essence of the sport – deep snow on steep slopes away from crowds and judges.
McMorris wants to carve out the same career lines as Haakonsen.
"You can't compete on icy, hard slopes forever," McMorris said.
On the Olympics, the young man is comfortable in his position, and is content to differ from the man he calls Uncle T.
"Terje stood up and didn't go to the Olympics because he didn't view, whatever," McMorris said, "and I agree, skiers run it. But I want to represent my country."