May 20, 2022

Review and News

Su Yiming wins giant air snowboard gold with boundary-pushing efficiency

Su had earned his victory lap after an afternoon spent pushing the sport forward and submitting the argument that he is, at 17, the best contest snowboarder alive. The snowboarders at Shougang Big Air combined to produce what Canadian bronze medalist Max Parrot hailed as “definitely for sure the heaviest final we’ve ever seen in snowboarding.” They landed 1800s — a trick with five full spins — with such staggering frequency and flair that the trick, not executed once four years ago, now seems like a barrier to entry.

No one performed them like Su. As the small stadium roared, Su added a big air gold medal to the silver he won in slopestyle. If judges had seen that Parrot, the slopestyle gold medalist, had grabbed his knee and not his board, and thus given him an appropriately lower score, Su would have won two gold medals at his first Olympics.

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“I still have lots of goals,” Su said. “This is only the start of my dreams.”

Su ended the big air competition with his first two jumps. On the first, he effectively used a frontside 1800 as his safety jump, still scoring 89.5 for a trick meant to establish a baseline score. On the second, Su unleashed an 1800 spinning the opposite direction with a triple cork — three off-axis flips — while grabbing his board for a 93.0. The two 1800s gave him a lead so massive most other riders opted for secure tricks they hoped would land them second or third.

Had anyone surpassed Su, it may not have been enough. Su said afterward he would have attempted a 1980, a trick with 5½ spins, which has never been landed in competition.

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“I had to be ready to do the hardest thing possible,” Su said. “In the end, my first two runs were enough, and I just wanted to do the move that I would enjoy the most.”

Four years ago, a 1620 had been Canadian Sebastien Toutant’s victorious trick. Tuesday, most finalists used that as a safety jump. Seven riders landed at least one 1800, a number that again begged a persistent question within the sport: What is big air’s limit, and are riders finally pushing against it?

“That’s a great question, and it’s impossible to answer,” Norwegian silver medalist Mons Roisland said. “It’s such a new and evolving sport still, where people are just pushing and pushing the limit. I have to say that I can imagine doing a lot more. You could squeeze another 180 around. But it’s going to come to a point where it’s going to be correlating with injures, you know? That’s where it’s going to stop people from doing it over and over again, because it’s really dangerous. The bigger the trick, the more scary and risky it is.”

On Tuesday, the United States could not keep up. Red Gerard finished fifth by landing two stylish 1620s, one spot ahead of his 2018 big air finish, giving the 2018 slopestyle gold medalist two top-five finishes in Beijing but no hardware. Fellow Coloradoan Chris Corning was the lone rider who completed a quad 1800 — “I was super stoked,” he said — but stumbled on his second jump and managed only a 1440 on his third on his way to seventh.

“I’ll take this fifth,” Gerard said. “That was a crazy final to watch. I knew it would all have come down to [1800s and 1980s], and I wanted to stick to what I’ve got to do, 16s, and see how they would score.”

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Their finishes completed a meager performance for U.S. men’s snowboarding. For the first time since 1998, the first year the Olympics included snowboarding and then just two events, no U.S. man won an individual snowboarding medal. As Shaun White exited, the United States found neither a clear heir apparent nor the depth to make up for his absence on the men’s side.

In Beijing, U.S. men managed two fourth-place finishes, one of them from White in halfpipe. Gerard took fourth in slopestyle, where he felt he deserved better scores, as he defended his 2018 gold. Since 2010, the United States had won at least two medals and at least one gold at every Olympics.

The progression of the sport and the United States’ shutout may be related. In December, at a condo in Steamboat Springs, Colo., Gerard showed a reporter a video of a snowboarder riding down what looked like a giant marshmallow, taking off a massive jump, spinning like a dervish and landing in the airy surface.

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“It’s totally insane,” he said.

It was a training aid called the SnowFlex air bag. Snowboarding is always progressing to bigger, flashier, riskier tricks. The SnowFlex accelerated the process.

“The U.S. is just starting to get them,” Gerard said then. “China and Japan have been on them for so long. I just started to hit them recently, and it’s crazy how similar it is to snow. You can go do whatever the heck you want on it without getting hurt and do it over and over to the point where you feel dialed in enough and go do it on snow. It’s almost identical as doing it there as trying it on snow. You get rid of a lot of danger.”

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The ability to practice spinning on a snowboard with reduced risk has started to reshape the sport. Canadian Mark McMorris suggested organizers may need to build higher jumps with steeper, longer landings to give riders enough time for more than five spins. That would advance the sport. It would also make it more hazardous.

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“It’s getting pretty crazy,” McMorris said. “I thought it would maybe cap out at one point, too, but it keeps going and keeps going. I don’t think it’s going to max out ever. The progression continually happens.”

The 1980, a preposterous 5½ spins, has never been landed in competition but, “I know that 19s are possible,” Parrot said. “[2160s], that’s still a lot for now. But in a couple years? Yes, I think it’s going to come.”

Anyone who watched Su at these Olympics would not doubt any possibility. On Tuesday, after his final jump, he rode down the slope with his arms raised, shoulder-length black hair spilling out the back of his helmet. The crowd waved and held red-and-yellow Chinese flags. Parrot and Roisland sprinted at him on the snow. After what Su had done, the notion that snowboarding had reached a limit seemed silly.

“That question actually makes me laugh,” Parrot said. “Every year, for the past 15 years, everyone says snowboarding has reached the highest level. But no, it definitely hasn’t. There is still so much more to still do with amazing riders like Su. He is going to push the sport to another level.”

Christian Shepherd contributed.


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