Olympic preview: Men's snowboard big air
Now that Anna Gasser of Austria has successfully captured the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women's snowboard big air, it's almost time to crown the first-ever Olympic champion on the men's side.
Big air snowboarding has progressed tremendously in recent years, and there's been a lot of build-up to these Olympics, so expect heavy tricks to come out quickly in the final.
Or as Mark McMorris put it: "There's probably [going to be] some mind-boggling s---."
Every time there's a big air event, there's always talk about "quads" — a type of trick that features four inverted flips. It's such a progressive trick that only two riders have landed a quad in competition, only a few others have done it in training, and many are hesitant to even try.
It seems unlikely that quad corks will be seen in the big air final, especially with Norway's Marcus Kleveland out of the competition, but anything could happen.
What does seem likely is that 1440s (triple corks or otherwise) will no longer be enough to get the job done. The gauntlet was thrown down during the second heat of qualifying, with the top five riders all landing some variation of a 1620 in order to move on.
That's how Kleveland, a pre-event favorite for gold, found himself eliminated. He had opted for a backside 1440 on his first jump, but when that wasn't enough, he attempted to up the rotation to a 1620 on his second jump and was unable to land it.
Had Kleveland been in the easier first heat instead of the harder second heat, he likely would have been able to make the final. Or if he hadn't been one of the first riders in his heat to take a run, perhaps he would have started off with a bigger trick. But that's just the luck of the draw, and onward we go to the final, where the strategy now changes.
Unlike the qualifying round, the athletes must now land two different tricks during the final, and they only have three runs to do it. So consistency and variety can be just as important as difficulty.
The favorites are Canadian riders Max Parrot and Mark McMorris. Earlier in these Olympics, both athletes won slopestyle medals (Parrot earned silver, McMorris took bronze), but they are just as good — if not better — in big air.
Parrot is a huge innovator in the world of big air. He's landed a number of never-been-done tricks before, including a quad underflip and a cab triple cork 1800.
McMorris is a technically-skilled rider with a number of triple corks variations, including an incredibly difficult switch backside 1620.
While Parrot and McMorris will be difficult to top, the absence of Kleveland leaves at least one podium spot wide-open for the taking.
The U.S. team has three athletes in the final, including slopestyle gold medalist Red Gerard. However the 17-year-old doesn't really consider himself to be a big air rider. Gerard excels more on the slopestyle courses, which allow him to be creative and execute technical rail tricks.
When it comes to big air, he's had a game plan in mind all along for what tricks he wants to do. Gerard said that he doesn't plan to attempt "anything crazy" though, which is why he opted to forego a day of big air practice in favor of returning to the U.S. for a quick media tour after his slopestyle victory.
"If I didn't do good in this event, it's like, 'Whatever,' I really don't care too much," he said, according to The Associated Press. "If I'm being totally honest with you guys, I never really wanted big air to be in the Olympics."
The top medal hope for Team USA might be either Chris Corning or Kyle Mack.
This past offseason, Corning worked on a backside quad cork and a frontside 1800. He has not yet attempted either trick in a contest, but if things line up correctly, perhaps he'll decide to go for one of those.
Mack is known for adding creative and stylish grabs to his tricks. He earned the third highest score in his qualifying heat for a backside triple cork 1440 that included a Japan grab.
Another rider to watch out for is Carlos Garcia Knight of New Zealand. He was the top qualifier on Wednesday after successfully landing a switch backside 1620 on both of his attempts.
Thursday in PyeongChang, 16-year-old Zoi Sadowski-Synnott (women's snowboard big air) and Nico Porteous (men's freeski halfpipe) both earned bronze medals for New Zealand — only the country's second and third Winter Olympic medals all-time. What a week it would be for the Kiwis if Garcia Knight is able to add to an already historic medal haul.
There are six other riders in the final as well: Switzerland's Jonas Boesiger and Michael Schaerer, Sweden's Niklas Mattsson, Norway's Torgeir Bergrem, Canada's Sebastien Toutant, and Great Britain's Billy Morgan.
The big air final will take place Saturday in PyeongChang (Friday night at 8:00 p.m. ET in the U.S.) and will be streaming live on NBCOlympics.com.
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