EDMONTON — Mark McMorris will celebrate his 29th birthday this weekend. But, in snowboarding terms, he’s an old man.
Eli Bouchard is just 14 years old, and McMorris is one of his idols.
At this weekend's FIS Snowboard World Cup Big Air event at Commonwealth Stadium, dubbed "The Style Experience," both the veteran and the phenom will be in the spotlight.
McMorris is a three-time Olympic medallist. He has more podium finishes than any other athlete in the history of the Winter X Games.
Bouchard got a special exemption, requested by Canada Snowboard, so he could ride for his country this weekend. The FIS normally does not allow competitors under the age of 15.
Bouchard will be making his World Cup debut, on the 15-storey ramp that’s been built right into the side of Commonwealth Stadium. He will turn 15 two days after the event ends.
“I remember being that age, and getting to compete against your heroes is pretty special,” said McMorris. “The first pro contest I did was around 15 years old, and what a feeling that was. It’s crazy how long I’ve been at this. It’s cool to see the excitement that they have — and they keep getting younger. It’s unbelievable how good they can be at such a young age.”
Bouchard got onto a snowboard before his second birthday, and became a YouTube sensation at the age of eight, when he became the youngest rider ever to land a double backflip.
“I just want to have some fun,” Bouchard said of making his World Cup debut. “(The jump) is pretty big, so if I can land my tricks, I am going to be stoked.”
And Bouchard is pinching himself now that’s he’s McMorris’s teammate.
“It’s pretty sick. When I was young I was watching videos of him, just trying some tricks, thinking of him.”
While there have been previous World Cup events on slopes held up by scaffolding, what’s been constructed in Edmonton is unique. The ramp is built into the side of the stadium. Riders climb to a temporary scaffold nine metres above the final row of the upper deck, then plunge down toward the jump. Jasmine Baird, who won bronze at the season-opening women’s event in Switzerland, said the structure is awe-inspiring, even for athletes who are used to being daredevils.
“It doesn’t look real, I’m actually in disbelief,” said Baird of the man-made slope. “The thing is huge … and to see it in a stadium like this, I couldn’t have dreamt of something like this. It’s crazy.
“It’s scary, for sure. The biggest thing is just figuring out the speed. Usually, before the first time I hit something like this, I’d watch a couple of other people go, because there’s those first people who don’t really care, they just want to hit it and get after it.”
McMorris said when riders are at a mountain resort, they have time to get used to the slope. They can take some easy runs just to get acclimated to the conditions. But, at Commonwealth, there is no easing into it. You climb up the ramp, you go down.
“It’s quite a big difference, you can’t really do a warm-up run or take an easy run down,” said McMorris. “For a lot of the people, they fly around the world to Edmonton and the first run they do is down a scaffolding jump. There’s really no backing out.
"The in-run is narrow, there is not as much time to set up, it can’t be manicured as well. So, scaffolding is definitely a little bit scarier. If you can do your tricks on snow, you can usually do them on the scaffolding, but it tends to be a little harder. So, you have to make sure your stuff is completely dialed if you want to bring it to a jump like this.”
If the Canadian riders want to get on the podium this weekend, they know that they have to knock off the top snowboarders from the heralded Japanese team. At the season-opening Big Air event in Chur, Switzerland. Takeru Otsuka and Ruki Tobita finished 1-2 in the men’s event, while Reira Iwabuchi took top spot in the women’s competition.
“The Japanese riders have definitely been killing it,” said Baird. “Men and women, overall, they’re so good. I love watching them, their style, and they’re so consistent.
"They are role models and they’ve just been pushing the sport.”
“There’s one thing I can say about the Japanese team, and it’s that they have an incredible work ethic,” said McMorris. “Their acrobatic skills are through the roof. And they don’t really take summers off. They spend all summer on the air bag. They are definitely the ones to watch out for. They are pushing, and they can take some serious slams and get up. Some of my best friends compete for Japan, and they’re the ones to watch out for.”
Qualifying runs go Friday in Edmonton, with the finals in both women's and men's classes on Saturday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2024.
Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press