The White heat is on
The most exciting stories in sports are born out of rivalries, competitions in which underdogs beat all odds to unseat champions. But let's be honest: In snowboarding, the only rivalries fans care about are those that involve Shaun White.
You've heard of him, right? The two-time Olympic gold-medal winning, 20-foot backside-air boosting, perfect-score-earning, Forbes power-list ranking friend of rock stars and dual-sport superstar who holds a whopping 22 X Games medals?
It's accolades like those that make White famous enough to star as himself in Hollywood movies, and have personally branded lines of bed sheets, scooters and zebra-print jeggings. And why? Because no one can come close to beating him in a halfpipe competition.
Yes, that guy. There is no denying his freakish ability to win snowboard contests or that he deserves to dominate conversations for that reason. But is it necessary to stage all other snowboarders as White's challengers for people to notice them?
If an athlete is talented enough to not only beat White at his own game, but to threaten those coveted X Games and even Olympic wins, it's hard not to take note.
Because everyone likes a Shaun White rivalry, and also perhaps a bit of controversy, here is where our story begins.
Mark McMorris deserves recognition in his own right. Not because he is a great competitor -- classic really, the kind of guy who rides better when the pressure is turned on -- but because he has the hallmarks of so many of snowboarding's greats. He has the traits of guys who dominated competitions in their early years before they moved beyond contests to challenge snowboarding's boundaries of possibility.
McMorris turned 19 in December. Three years ago he was barely sponsored and riding in major pro contests. Before that he was just another am fighting through qualifying ranks. And before that he was just another talented kid watching snowboard movies at home in the flatlands of Regina, Saskatchewan, practicing what he saw whenever he could get someone to take him to the mountains.
In the short time between winning a silver medal at his first X Games in 2011 and winning double gold medals in Slopestyle and Big Air at X Games in 2012, and now, McMorris has marked a few items off his bucket list. He became the first person to land a backside triple cork 1440 (in and outside of competition), had the legendary Terje Haakonsen personally take him under his wing (McMorris calls him "Uncle T"), and was invited by Travis Rice to ride in both his movie and his elite backcountry snowboarding contest, the Red Bull Supernatural.
Meanwhile, when White was off on his Vancouver Olympic adventure, something interesting happened. As the world turned its focus to the halfpipe, a new generation of snowboarders -- young riders, many still in high school -- materialized, seemingly out of nowhere, and took over the big air and slopestyle competition circuits.
While coaches, agents and board technicians began to outnumber competitors waiting in stony, serious silence at the top of halfpipes, the slopestyle arena turned into a party. Freed from the pressure of the mainstream media and of having to try to beat the sport's biggest superstar, the new generation of kicker kids laughed their way through competitions, taking turns winning and losing while pushing each other to perfect every trick variation along the way.
White was gone from slope competition for only two seasons. But when he returned to X Games in 2011, the man with seven XG Slopestyle medals to his credit -- five of them gold, the last of which he won in 2009 -- didn't make the Slopestyle finals. In fact, after one pre-event practice session, "I knew I was walking into a slaughter," says White, who had never done a double cork off a kicker before that day. "I did [the contest] anyway."
He then watched from the sidelines as two X Games newbies -- McMorris and Sebastien Toutant -- took silver and gold, respectively, with runs that solidly demonstrated the level to which slopestyle riding had jumped while he was away.
That demo "showed me where I needed to be," White says. "I was able to look at the guy who finished first and say: That's the winning run. And it pissed me off. I learned a front double cork 10 that day during practice, didn't make finals, [then] learned a back double 10 right after that. The next season, I started going after each trick with a 'Kill Bill' checklist."
But while White was learning double corks, McMorris and Toutant were learning backside triple cork 1440s. When they all returned to Aspen in 2012, McMorris pulled the trick out and, in an epic Big Air battle with triple cork innovator Torstein Horgmo, became the first snowboarder to land it in a contest, earning him his first X Games gold. The next day, McMorris came back and won a second gold in Slopestyle. (An event that White pulled out of, citing an ankle injury.)
As if to prove he didn't bow out of Slopestyle because he was afraid of the competition, White made his first appearance at X Games Tignes two months later, and rode away with gold medals in both SuperPipe and Slopestyle. McMorris, meanwhile, came away with silver for a run that scored seven points off of White's.
"He deserved to win that contest," McMorris says. "He won by a lot, though, so that was kind of interesting to see, [especially] with the rail tricks he chose. I think it was overwhelming for the judges to see him come back and do a run [that] a lot of guys can do. But he landed it so well, at the right time, I think they just kind of freaked out and gave him an extremely high score."
How White is scored at the X Games has long been a topic of debate. He has developed a habit of grabbing his board over his boot while he spins, which is a style faux pas for which most snowboarders would be heavily penalized, yet it rarely affects his scores. According to one of the judges in Tignes, White's winning run was given a 97 because he did back-to-back double cork 1260s -- which is a justification that ignores that he skipped a rail at the top of the course and came off early on a basic rail trick at the bottom.
"It's slopestyle," McMorris argues. "Slopestyle has jumps and rails, and you have to score them both. A lot of guys are trying insane rail tricks, and I think they need to start to reward us for that [or] I don't see why they would have rails in the contest at all."
This last point is a major source of contention among those in snowboarding's top ranks because the next big milestone in slope will be when someone figures out how to throw a triple cork in a run. But if a winning run is supposed to be scored on the technicality and execution of jump and rail tricks, should a triple alone be reason enough to claim a victory? Not really.
But the triple cork is the reason McMorris has been singled out as the rider holding the kryptonite that can keep White's other-worldly contest-winning power at bay. He is not the only snowboarder who can do the triple, but he's the one who throws and lands it most consistently. "I've done it quite a few times and I understand if a jump works for it or not right off the start," he says.
Due to the high-scoring potential of tricks that have never been thrown in a contest before, whoever lands the triple in a slopestyle run first is almost guaranteed a win. Knowing this, does McMorris think White is off somewhere right now, sequestered away in a private snowboard park trying to learn how to land a triple?
"For sure. He's going to learn it. You need it now. That's what everybody's trying to learn," McMorris says.
So does this mean McMorris -- someone who, it must be noted, has said on record that he "hopes the triple never becomes a part of slopestyle contests" -- might be the one who actually ushers in this new era?
"Yeah. I'm going to try it for sure, if I make it to finals," he says. "I want to win. Everybody wants to; some people don't admit it. I'll admit it. It's what it's going to take."
Those might sound like the words of someone with a champion's spirit, but they are deceptive. As much as McMorris is a person who thrives in competition and can rise to the occasion in pressure situations, his biggest asset is not that he wants to win; it's that at the end of it all, he's not afraid to lose.
Come X Games Snowboard Slopestyle elimination Jan. 24, the more interesting competition to watch -- and not just at the X Games, but as the entire pre-Olympic contest season unfolds -- will be the battle of demeanors.
The one quality all slopestyle competitors share right now is an honest affection for each other. Win or lose, "there are no hard feelings," McMorris says. "You want to do well, but you are so tight with everybody, you just want to see everybody do well. I think that's why slopestyle has progressed so much. It's different than halfpipe, I know that for a fact."
White himself has talked about the palpable difference in the vibes surrounding the two competitions and how much he prefers the joking around that is always taking place at the top of slopestyle courses. Yet White is a fierce competitor who hates to lose so much that it makes him angry. His seriousness is partially responsible for creating the mood over at the halfpipe in the first place.
What's more, since his is the face fans have come to associate with snowboarding competition, that seriousness is what we all have come to think of as "normal." But over on the slope course, chances are, high-fives and banter are being exchanged. Call it another version of "normal."
However, as the Winter Olympics grow closer, and the pressure to make it to Sochi and win international fame and glory in the first Olympic slopestyle competition mounts, will they maintain these positive attitudes?
Ask McMorris how he has been affected by this relatively recent onset of fame, and he just shrugs. "I just like to film and ride with my friends and compete," he says. "It's fun to get bigger and well known. [But the goal] is to stay the same -- just keep trying to get better at snowboarding and keep treating people the same way you always have."
If McMorris can maintain that attitude, especially when the whole world is watching, snowboarding is going to need more rivalries like this one.