BONGPYEONG, South Korea — When it was all over, after snowboarders had fought with the whipping wind, flailed while airborne, tumbled into the snow, bounced on their rear ends, crashed and skidded, one rider described the conditions as “dangerous.” Another called the event a “s--- show.” Yet another said the past two hours had been “literally a case of survival,” because among 26 of the best female snowboarders, only one seemed impervious to the sporting world’s most merciless mountain.
In a moment when slopestyle snowboarding looked its most chaotic, American Jamie Anderson solidified her case as the sport’s best rider. She not only claimed gold, but clinched it before her last run. She nailed jumps when others fell, aimed slightly higher when others went conservative, and said matter-of-factly about the conditions, “I was kind of down for whatever.”
What that led to was the United States’s second gold medal of these Games — with Anderson defending her title from Sochi in an event likely to be remembered as much for its victor as for its recklessness. The slopestyle finals were conducted Monday with temperatures in the teens. Winds were severe enough that snow somersaulted in the sky. Organizers had delayed the event’s start time by an hour and then decided to go ahead. Some of the world’s best snowboarders were reduced to crash test dummies.
“I’m not happy about it being run,” said Cheryl Maas of the Netherlands, who placed 23rd. “It’s not just me. It’s everybody landing on their ass. It sucks not seeing 1080s. It was just a s---show.”
After the event, the International Ski Federation said in a statement that the weather conditions were “challenging” but safe. The federation said that it monitored the conditions, consulted with coaches, and determined that the “weather was stable enough to proceed with the competition.”
“FIS always aims for the athletes to be able to stage their best performances, which some athletes have expressed was not the case today, but the nature of outdoor sports also requires adapting to the elements,” the statement said.
The conditions favored Anderson, a Californian who has been snowboarding for nearly two decades, who four times has won slopestyle gold medals in the X Games, who fashions herself as somebody who can find peace in any circumstances. She meditates, she does yoga, she talks about gemstones and candles and essential oils and oneness with earth. She was ready for a mountain like this.
“Today I brought frankincense and lavender,” Anderson began in her distinct way. “Frankincense is a tree oil and smells really earthy. When I freak out, I put it on my wrists and the back of my neck and it really does help you just feel a little bit more calm.”
Anderson, 27, had fretted last week that the sport, with so many young riders, was progressing beyond her. Other were pulling off more daring tricks, things she wouldn’t even try. But the conditions in PyeongChang played to her strengths. On her first run down the slope, she nailed each of her three jumps — one of fewer than a half-dozen riders to do so. She had just enough style on the rails. Her first run of the day earned an 83.00. On the day, only five other riders were able to break 70. Laurie Blouin of Canada won silver, Enni Rukajarvi of Finland bronze. Americans Jessika Jenson and Hailey Langland came in fifth and sixth.
“The conditions helped the more experienced riders,” Anderson’s brother, Luke, said while celebrating with 16 other family members at the bottom of the course, where they had been for four hours, surviving on adrenaline and hand warmers. “And she’s so competitive. She likes to win.”
At the bottom of the mountain, from the vantage point of the grandstands, the slopestyle course was a near-total unknown, obscured by a hump-like final jump. All fans could do was follow on a video screen and then wait to spot an airborne snowboarder, finishing her run with a final jump. But for several snowboarders — including Japan’s Yuka Fujimori — the finish to their runs were in fact tumbling crashes, greeted with groans from the crowd. Others couldn’t even get that far on the course, stumbling and not even trying for big air at the finale. Snowboarders said that their boards acted like giant sails, catching the wind and amplifying it.
Even before Monday, the event had already been warped by weather. Under normal circumstances, the final day of the women’s slopestyle would have consisted of three runs. The field competing in those runs would have already been trimmed in an earlier day of qualifying. But Sunday’s qualifying run was canceled because of weather. So instead, everybody made the finals — and had two runs, not three, to prove themselves. The finals were then delayed for an hour by weather. Officials finally decided to start the competition — in conditions that riders said were worse than Sunday’s.
“Well, it’s really a battle with nature,” said Switzerland’s Elena Koenz, who came in 10th. “It’s interesting to watch, maybe, but not if you’re flying 25 meters in the air. It’s not how we can show the best conditions for our sport.”
“I don’t think it was a fair competition,” said Austria’s Anna Gasser, one of top slopestyle snowboarders, who placed 15th. “I’m a little disappointed. I think they should have canceled it.”
Anderson vaulted into first place with her first run and then waited an hour, as 24 other snowboarders tried to outdo her. (One other rider dropped out.) But nobody could. When the day’s penultimate snowboarder, American Julia Marino, scored a 41.05, Anderson was standing atop the mountain, ready for her final run. She’d already clinched gold. She rocked her head back and raised her hands in celebration.
Then it was her turn to come down the mountain and get her medal. She could have walked down the slope, or gone down backward.
As it happened, her victory lap was a fitting one: Midway through the course, Anderson took her first big jump and caught a gust of wind. Her arms started helicoptering. She bottomed into the snow. Then she picked herself up, continued the course, and started to celebrate.
“Honestly,” she said, “I’m ecstatic.”
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