Sickest spectacle on snow: Big air has big names gunning for gold

Like characters in a real-life video game, big air competitors will soar off a 49-metre ramp to perform jumps, flips and tricks before landing, hopefully, on their feet. Dangerous? Yes. Thrilling? Yes. Instagram worthy? Absolutely.

Canada boasts deep roster including Mark McMorris, Max Parrot, Laurie Blouin, Spencer O'Brien

In this multiple exposure image, Canada's Laurie Blouin jumps during qualification for the women's big air snowboard competition at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Monday. (Dmitri Lovetsky/The Associated Press)

​By Vicki Hall, CBC Sports

So much for all that whinging over the 2018 Olympic Winter Games lacking star power with Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and the rest of the NHLers stuck back at home.

As it turns out, there's more than enough magic in Pyeongchang, even without the big names of the NHL — led by the X Games superheroes of slopestyle, halfpipe, and now big air.

Wisely, the International Olympic Committee saved the "sickest" spectacle for the final week with big air snowboarding making its five-ring circus debut.

The women's final, featuring Canadians Laurie Blouin and Spencer O'Brien, is slated for Wednesday night (moved forward from Thursday due to high winds in the forecast.) Qualifications for the men are set for Tuesday at the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre with the final scheduled for Friday.

"All the good riders are gonna be hucking their carcass around," Regina's Mark McMorris told ESPN. "It's going to be exciting times."

One of four new Olympic disciplines, big air is targeted at millenials but will no doubt become a darling across all demographics.

Real-life video game

Like characters in a real-life video game, competitors soar off a 49-metre ramp. Once airborne, they perform jumps, flips and tricks before landing, hopefully, on their feet.

Competitors receive marks for height, difficulty, style and quality of landing. They get three attempts, with the lowest score discarded.

Dangerous? Yes. Thrilling? Yes. Instagram worthy? Absolutely.

To add in even more drama for those watching in this country, the top-two medal favourites are Canadian – and they aren't exactly the closest of friends.

Max Parrot, of Bromont, Que. is the reigning Olympic silver medallist in slopestyle and winner of the last three Winter X Games titles in big air.

Regina's Mark McMorris, darling of the big screen and social media, is the Olympic bronze medallist in slopestyle, and winner of the Olympic big air test event in Pyeongchang.

Keep in mind: McMorris has already authored an Olympic comeback for the ages in Pyeongchang by winning slopestyle bronze 11 months after nearly dying in the Whistler backcountry. His laundry list of injuries from crashing into a tree included a ruptured spleen, fractured jaw and left arm, collapsed lung, pelvic fracture, and rib fractures.

Can he add another chapter — this one golden — to his real-life fairy tale?

'Keep your fingers crossed'

"I've definitely [got] a realistic hope of gold in big air," McMorris told reporters after receiving his slopestyle bronze. "I've had a lot of success, won the test event here last year, and I feel really confident about the venue and everything.

"I definitely have the tricks to do it. I just need to land on that day so keep your fingers crossed for me."

Arguably, Parrot has even more tricks as he is one of only two riders to successfully land a quad in competition. But Parrot told CBC Sports in October that the jump in Pyeongchang isn't big enough to pull off the quadruple flip.

Still, with gold on the line, anything could happen.

"I am now the most successful athlete in the air," Parrot said to CBC Sports in January. "I have the most medals in the history of (X Games) big air and it makes me very, very proud."

McMorris talks about the Canadian men's snowboard team like a proud papa and calls Canada an "insanely dominating nation" especially in big air. Sebastien Toutant, of Repentigny, Que., and Tyler Nicholson, of North Bay, Ont. are also in the medal mix in Pyeongchang.

Consider: Darcy Sharpe, the brother of ski halfpipe gold medallist Cassie Sharpe, is an alternate in Pyeongchang in spite of winning silver at last month's X Games in Aspen, Colo.

A Canadian medal sweep in big air is unlikely, but possible, in Pyeongchang. (American Redmond Gerard, gold medallist in slopestyle and 2017 big air world champion Staale Sandbech, of Norway, may have something to say about that.)

Regardless, the high-flying, easy-talking stars of the mountain have given Canadians every reason to stop yearning for their NHL hockey heroes.

Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, make way for Max Parrot and Mark McMorris.

For one week, anyway.