Mark McMorris: Education By Snow
With the glare from white-hot spotlights beating down on him, Mark McMorris tries to keep cool. The 19-year-old snowboarder has spent his entire day bouncing from one interview to another, answering questions on topics ranging from his budding rivalry with dual-sport heavy Shaun White to what runs through his mind when he's attempting a new trick that could land him in the hospital.
His day is almost over. But in a few minutes, after a commercial break, his pale white baby face will be broadcast on television one last time. As he waits for the moment to begin, wearing skinny dark jeans, a black-and-white flannel and a white Red Bull cap cocked backwards, his hands begin to fidget.
If he's nervous, it's understandable. McMorris has never been about the spotlight. As an elementary school cross country runner, he was once too embarrassed to accept a team award because he felt uncomfortable with public recognition. "It's not him," says McMorris' father, Don. "He'd be just as happy with no one watching."
But on this day, like most every other day since X Games last January, everyone is watching. That's because last year in Aspen, McMorris became the first snowboarder since White to win two golds at X Games and the first to land a triple cork 1440. Now, a year later, expectations are elevated. And the spotlight is on.
"They're calling you Mr. McMorris in my earpiece," the interviewer says during the break. "Like you're old and official."
The teenager chuckles. His cheeks turn an ever-so-slight shade of red.
"Actually," he says. "The truth is the total opposite."
The story of the world's hottest young snowboarding star begins in his parents' driveway. It involves a series of twists and turns in the unlikeliest of places, not to mention a set of trusting parents who eventually allowed their son to put snowboarding before school.
But long before that, long before McMorris rode his first rail, won his first X Games gold or earned the label "NEXT," he was a feisty, hard-headed, mind-of-his-own little boy who tested his parents at seemingly every turn.
On one such day, when Mark was just a toddler, Cindy, his mother, left her two boys in the backseat of the family's car when she ran into the house for a quick minute. Mark unlatched his car seat, climbed over the front seat, shifted the running car into drive and then watched as it rolled into a toolshed.
"He was the high-maintenance, high-energy kid," Cindy says. "It wasn't always easy."
At one point, Mark's parents wondered if he had ADD. But after a series of classes, they were told he didn't. Instead, experts told Cindy, once Mark figured out what he wanted to do with his life, his focus and drive would rival most any other. He'd eventually grow into a successful, well-adjusted adult.
"I remember coming home, telling Don what they said and then saying something to the effect of, 'That's great, but what are we going to do for the next 15 years?'" Cindy said.
The answer was sports. Don and Cindy put Mark and his brother Craig, two years older, in every sport imaginable. Volleyball, lacrosse, football, soccer, hockey, cross country, gymnastics. Even karate. Yes, karate.
"He wanted the white kimono or whatever they call it," Don said. "He thought that was awesome. But then they paired him with a girl. He didn't think that was too cool. So that was the end of karate."
When Mark was five and Craig seven, his mom took the two boys to Lake Louise to go skiing. They refused. The only way they would get on a mountain was on a snowboard. And that's where the love affair began. That day, after lessons, the two McMorris boys rode moving carpets to the top of the hill and snowboarded down. When the carpets stopped running that night, the boys climbed on their hands and knees to continue riding.
"I literally had to pull them off the mountain that night," Cindy said.
The boys had never experienced anything like it. They lived some eight hours away in the plains of Regina. The closest hill was Mission Ridge, an hour's drive away and even then, only 300 feet in elevation. It was no place to raise a snowboard champion. It would be like Michael Phleps hailing from water-starved Death Valley. Or Albert Pujols trying to learn baseball in the Arctic. But Mark and Craig didn't care about rules or geography. They were hooked. And little did Cindy know what she had gotten herself into.
Some eight years later, on a frigid winter night, Don and Cindy McMorris stand together on the north end of Regina, trying to convince themselves that everything is going to be OK. The wind is howling and cutting through their winter jackets. A steady snow falls, and temperatures hover around a bone-rattling 25-below zero. Yet here they are, sending their two children into the relative unknown.
In the years since that afternoon at Lake Louise, Mark and Craig had become snowboard addicts. Family vacations were built around getting to a hill. Each fall, long before the season's first snow, the boys would gather the excess snow and ice from local rinks and shovel it into the back of the family pick-up and have their mom haul it to a hill where they would lay it down and snowboard. When winter finally arrived, Don built an eight-foot drop-in with a rail in the backyard. The boys would be out there all hours of the day and night.
"In Canada, your backyard is supposed to be a rink," Don said. "But ours looked like the Clampetts', with rails and tubes and everything else."
Added Cindy: "We have elderly neighbors on both sides of us. I'm sure they thought we were nuts. Probably still do."
Every chance the boys got, they were either in the backyard or at Mission Ridge. It was at Mission Ridge where Mark and Craig caught the eye of Russ Davies, who was putting together the inaugural Saskatchewan Snowboard Team. He asked the McMorris boys to join.
The plan was for Mark, Craig, Coach Davies and a handful of other riders to pile into Davies' car each Thursday afternoon and drive the seven-plus hours to Calgary where the Rockies and Canadian Olympic Park awaited. They would ride all day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and then return home in the wee hours of Monday morning.
Cindy wasn't crazy about the idea. An operating room nurse, she was worried about her sons getting hurt. Or worse, ending up in a car accident. Then there was the education side of things. Missing school for snowboarding wasn't normal, especially in the flatlands of Saskatchewan.
"You know all your friends are saying, 'What are you going to do about school?" Cindy said. "They're thinking, 'Oh my god. What are they doing?" I understood. And I just wasn't comfortable with it."
But she had no choice. Her husband, Don, an elected official who served as the Minister of Health in Saskatchewan at the time and is now the Minster of Highways and Infrastructure, supported the boys 100 percent. He saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He also understood that it was perfectly normal for a Canadian teenager to leave home to chase his dreams of becoming a professional hockey player. Why should it be any different for snowboarders?
"It was a vote of 3-1," Don said. "And poor Cindy was often the one."
Beyond that, Don also looked into the eyes of his sons and knew how bad they wanted this.
"They probably would have walked if we wouldn't have dropped them off that night," he said. "This was their passion. This was what they wanted to do. And we weren't going to stop it."
And so, on that freezing winter night, Don and Cindy sat in their car and watched as the vehicle carrying their boys drifted further and further away.
"Letting go is not an easy thing to do," Don said. "And I think we've had to let go earlier than most parents."
Cindy McMorris agreed to the arrangement under one stipulation: Her boys wouldn't be allowed to fall behind on their school work. And that's where the tension began.
After stretching their riding time as long as they possibly could, Mark and Craig often wouldn't arrive home until two or three o'clock in the morning on Monday. A few hours later, there was Cindy, yanking her kids out of bed and sending them to school.
"It made me so mad," Mark says. "There were quite a few arguments about it. But she let us do it. If she wouldn't have let us, we would have been screwed."
"She just kept coming after us," Craig added. "'You can't do this. You can't do that. You need to go to school.' That just gave us the fire to prove to them that we could do this, that we could make snowboarding our lives."
In January of 2010, 16-year-old Mark gave his parents their first piece of proof, winning the inaugural World Cup Slopestyle championship event in Calgary.
"They gave me, like, $12,000 in prize money and I remember my mom was like, 'Oh. Okay. Maybe you do know what you're doing," Mark said.
"That's when it all clicked," Don added.
After winning the World Cup, Mark earned more invitations to more competitions. Agents and sponsors eventually followed. An occasional competition here or there turned into international trips and competitions all the time. Administrators at Mark's school struggled to understand what was happening, Don said. So Mark's parents moved him to a different school. They tried tutors. And correspondence work. But Mark struggled to keep up. The bigger he became on the hill, the more trouble he had in the classroom.
Eventually, his parents decided to allow him to drop out of school and skip the 11th and 12th grade, with the promise that he would eventually get his degree.
"It just got to the point where I wanted to enjoy him when he was home," Cindy said. "He wasn't home that often. And I didn't want to fight about that anymore. I knew he was maturing. I knew he was getting a different kind of education.
"But it was hard for me to swallow. You don't know anyone this day in age who doesn't have a Grade 12. But I know he's a smart enough kid and he'll get it someday."
Mark says he works on school each fall but that most of his education comes elsewhere.
"Education is still happening for me," Mark says. "It's just a little bit slower. I won't finish at the same rate as other kids. But I'm also learning so much with everything I do. This is my job. It's my life. I do it with friends from Japan and Norway. I've traveled all around the world. You can't teach that in a classroom. I get to do my thing, and I don't think I missed out on really anything."
Last spring, on the day that his former classmates graduated, McMorris doesn't even remember what he was doing.
"Probably something that was a lot more fun than that," he said. "Some might say I missed out on that sort of high school kid stuff. But I was doing what I loved, and I couldn't ask for it any better."
In the middle of his endless day of interviews, McMorris is sitting in the basement of an office building with another spotlight shining directly into his face. He's discussing the delicate balance between knowing when it's safe to push the limit on a new trick and when it's time to pull back. He says he isn't the type of rider who just tries random things and lets them happen. Instead, he tries to plan things out. Most of the time. He then mentions how lucky he has been to avoid serious injury. And that's when he pauses, looks around the room and tries to find a piece of wood to knock on. There isn't any. So he just knocks his closed fist in mid-air.
Later, when asked whether or not he's superstitious, he insists he isn't.
"Nah," he says. "That's just a bunch of B.S. When I say something about injuries or whatever, it's just a natural reaction to think, 'You know, I better knock on some wood.' That's all it is."
McMorris has handled his whirlwind day with a level of maturity and poise perhaps unexpected for an action sports star a month removed his 19th birthday. His personality is infectious and likable. He uses words like "please" and "thank you." And his midday lunch selection was a spinach salad, yogurt and bottle of Vitamin Water.
"This does everything for me," he says, pointing to his body. "Some people might say, 'Eh, it's not cool. Well, whatever. You can be cool and chill and still treat your body the right way. If you love snowboarding, treat your body well and you can enjoy it at a way older age."
Don and Cindy laugh when they hear about their son's well-mannered ways.
"He knows that when he's in public he has to be polite and not rude," Cindy says. "But at home, as a parent, you see the true kid in him."
The parents have no complaints about the young man their son has grown into, aside from the fact that he doesn't call home as much as they would like. But in a way, that's to be expected. At 19 years old, his life is unimaginable. He lives out of a suitcase. He makes enough money that his taxes are now higher than his father's yearly salary. And he travels the world with Craig, who serves as not only a competitor but a comedian who constantly keeps Mark laughing. Joining the brothers on their whirlwind ride is longtime friend Adam Burwell, who is seven years older than Mark and serves as part videographer, part coach and in a way, part chaperone. He's the responsible one.
It's all a dream, of which McMorris tries to remind himself with a tattoo on his right forearm that reads "LIVE FOR THE MOMENT."
The next moment will come on Jan. 24, when McMorris returns to Aspen for X Games. There, with the entire world watching, his goals will be simple.
"I'm just going to go there and try and land my stuff," he says. "If I do that, we'll be good."
And if he doesn't?
"Well," he smiles. "Then I'm probably going to get hurt."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.