On a recent night in downtown Toronto, you’d be excused for mistaking Mark McMorris for a member of a hugely popular boy band. In a crisp blue shirt and with a clean-cut scruffiness, the 20-year-old snowboarder works the room at a party celebrating his new MTV Canada reality show, which follows him and his older brother, Craig, around to contests, personal appearances, and even on vacation in Mexico. McMorris exudes confidence as he poses with a handful of girls crushing on him. “Yeah, 14- to 18-year-old girls follow what I do,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know why, but I thank them for that.”
McMorris is the most dominant snowboarder the world has seen since Shaun White. A slopestyle star since he turned pro in 2009, McMorris crushed all competition, including White, in the first few months of 2013, scoring gold at both the U.S. Open and the Winter X Games and silver in the European Open. When slopestyle debuts in Russia, McMorris is likely to be setting a bar for the event that could stand for the next decade. He’ll probably do it with a repeat of his trademark trick: the backside triple cork 1440 – three flips and four spins – a move as groundbreaking to his sport as Tony Hawk’s 900 on a skateboard. “Things will change either way,” he says of his life after Sochi. “It’s something you don’t necessarily want to think about all the time, but you can’t not.”
Growing up in Regina, Saskatchewan, McMorris had a go at baseball, basketball, and other team sports. He found them dull, so he turned to the slopes hours away from his prairie hometown. “When I was snowboarding with my friends,” he says, “there was no coach telling us what to do.” Since rails and boxes are easier to find in Canada than halfpipes, he ended up spending hour upon hour on slopestyle courses. He finally received his parents’ blessing to choose snowboarding over college when he walked away with $12,000 at a World Cup event in Calgary in 2010. The following spring, McMorris was at a steakhouse in Regina when he glanced up at a nearby TV. There he was, alongside a report that the IOC would finally be including slopestyle at the Olympics. “ ’I’m probably going to Russia’ – that’s what I thought,” McMorris recalls.
Whereas an earlier, more rebellious generation of action-sports athlete was suspicious of extreme sports going mainstream, McMorris doesn’t know an Olympics without his sport: He was four when snowboarding was introduced at Nagano, in 1998. “In 2010 I watched some of my best friends ride halfpipe at Vancouver, and it was so cool,” he says. “It feels different watching the Olympics than the X Games. The whole world is tuned in to the Olympics.”
With Sochi just around the corner, McMorris is starting to feel the pressure. The IOC’s drawings of the 2,083-foot slopestyle course seem like the setup for what he calls “a heck of a showdown.” But that face-off will most likely involve White, whom McMorris once called “lame” in a newspaper interview. McMorris views White warily, as a superstar removed from his hard-core riding roots. These days he’s more careful with his words: “I respect Shaun so much because he has 80 times the pressure of anybody. He is so good at landing under pressure.”
But White isn’t the only thing worrying McMorris tonight. In Australia last summer, he landed hard and seriously bruised both heels. Although he’s not wearing a cast, he’ll require three months of recuperation, just enough time to resume training for his spot on the Canadian team. “It sounds so lame that I bruised my heels,” McMorris says. “I’ll be ready – but it’s crazy to think it’s that one day where you need to be really on it.”
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