To the common spectator, extreme sports athletes seem to reside in an utterly unrelatable plane of existence. Every day, they embark on their next great quest to defy gravity, relentlessly intent on pushing the boundaries of what we perceive as humanly possible. Sometimes, it ends with an X-Games title or a gold medal hanging triumphantly around one’s neck. Other times, it ends with broken bones, a hospital bed, and gruelling rehabilitation. It’s a severe price to pay, but extreme athletes have always accepted these unforgiving terms. And yet the culture surrounding such dire stakes is perhaps more relaxed, composed, and laissez-faire than any other realm. Casually pushing back a mop of flowing brown hair and covering it with his trademark Red Bull beanie as he prepares for our interview, it’s clear Canadian Olympian Mark McMorris has always been the epitome of such composure.
Ever since emerging into the spotlight with his 2014 Olympic debut in Sochi, McMorris has exuded this unshakeable poise. While the public saw the Regina-native suffer a series of spills on his way to a surprising bronze medal finish, only those close to him knew just how much those runs might have cost him.
Just weeks before at X-Games XVIII, McMorris placed second, but not before tripping on the rails and crashing violently during his final run of the event. The result was a fractured rib. Of course, to the rest of the world, fractured ribs would mean avoiding barreling down hills at breakneck speeds. Instead, McMorris travelled across the globe to do it all over again less than a month later.
As he arrived in Sochi, the budding snowboarding star flashed a smile as he told reporters, “The amount of progress I’ve made since I broke my rib on Saturday has been unexplainable. I didn’t believe I could be on this path, going this fast. At the same time, walking around an airport is different than going snowboarding and taking impact.”
This hardened resilience coated in a cool, jovial exterior has defined not only McMorris but many of his idols. Tony Hawk, Laird Hamilton, Leticia Bufoni, Shaun White; each suffered an array of injuries and setbacks on their way to becoming the most decorated figures in extreme sports. Yet, along the way, they remained defined by their broad smiles and carefree aura.
“I definitely think extreme sports athletes have a different mindset than a lot of other athletes,” he says. “We have to go through some pretty grueling injuries at times and some uphill battles. But I’m glad to be in that space. I don’t want to be a football player on the pitch grabbing his ankle when a fly touches him. I think we have a pretty good standard that we’re held to. People know that if we’re complaining about getting hurt then we’re not joking.”
As for the risk involved, the nine-time X-Games gold medalist has learned to embrace such falls as inevitable costs of the sport. Unfortunately, over the years, those costs have only continued to rise for the 27-year-old, culminating in a devastating, near-fatal crash when boarding in the backcountry at Whistler, British Columbia with friends in 2017.
“I had a little mishap off of a takeoff and hit a tree,” McMorris recalls. “I broke 17 bones, ruptured my spleen, collapsed my lung. It was really bad.”
The backcountry outing wasn’t meant to pose much of a challenge for the budding star. He was attempting a frontside 360 jump, a trick that McMorris would land “99.9 percent of the time,” according to his brother, Craig. But when it comes to the fickle realm of extreme sports, even the slightest lapse can end a career. Fortunately, it’s these dire circumstances that lend themselves to McMorris’ rare blend of composure and an underlying hard-nosed resilience.
“I was able to make a full recovery and I worked very, very, very hard at that to then return to competition,” says McMorris. “When I came back, I wasn’t necessarily scared anymore. I could count on my strength, ended up qualifying to go to the Olympics, went there, and got a medal. […] It was honestly the best thing that’s ever happened to me. At the time it felt like the worst, but in the end, I’m glad I had to go through that experience.”
Today, nearly five years removed from the accident, McMorris’ passion for the sport remains as steadfast as ever. Entering the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the Regina-native doesn’t plan on reigning himself in. He’s still defined by the same wide-eyed wonderment that drew him to the sport when a neighbour first handed him a skateboard at five years old. But now, despite his enduring confidence, McMorris’ approach to the sport has shifted compared to the brashness that defined his earlier Olympic appearances.
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Ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Canadian media personality George Stroumboulopoulos interviewed the young starboarding star on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and asked him about the risk of serious injuries in extreme sports.
“That’s why they have hospitals, I guess,” replied McMorris, automatically, a signature grin painted across his face. “It truly does suck, but that’s part of the game. If you get hurt, you just want to get back even more. It’s a weird addiction, but that’s just the way it is.”
Of course, a lot has happened since then. As he enters his third Olympic Games, time away from the sport forced by severe injuries and COVID complications has left McMorris more grateful for snowboarding than ever before.
“You learn a lot about yourself, your body, and how bad you want to be there,” says McMorris, reflecting on the roadblocks he’s been forced to navigate over the past several years. “And then when you do come back and can enjoy the sport that’s given you everything, the gratitude just skyrockets.”
It’s a different mindset than he had in 2013; more reflective and astute, no longer bound by the notions of invincibility that consume most young extreme sports athletes. When reminded of his response to Stroumboulopoulos years ago, the now-27-year-old can’t help but laugh.
“From 2013 to now, a lot has changed,” he says. “But that determination and relentlessness are still there. I think I’m just a little more calculated and smarter with when to push and when not to. That comes with experience.”
His approach to Beijing 2022 relies on finding the balance between the undying resilience that helped fuel each rehabilitation and the conscious gratefulness that has kept him grounded over the years. Today, there’s a healthy understanding of what’s at stake and an appreciation for how valuable each Olympic opportunity truly is. He’s still as extreme as he’s ever been, still carrying the same composed, laissez-faire attitude we’ve always seen from the best extreme sports athletes, but now, after years of turbulent injuries and arduous comebacks, such composure combines with a healthy dose of mindfulness. As for his excitement heading back to the Olympic stage, the Canadian feels no apprehension regarding his return.
“My excitement levels heading into my third Olympics are through the roof,” he says. “Excited, nervous, and ready to go. I know I should be there. I know I still have what it takes to win, for sure. I just hope I can go there and ride to the best of my ability. That’s always the goal.”
Entering with the same cool self-assurance necessary to land tricks others have thought impossible and the resilience to get back up when such tricks go awry, this time, McMorris will be travelling to Beijing with a new perspective altogether.
“Sochi, I came in with a broken rib. PyeongChang, I basically came back from the dead,” he recalls. “This time, I’d like it to be different in the sense that I get to go there healthy and don’t have so many burdens on me. I just want to go in and count on the work I’ve put in. It’s been going super smoothly thus far, so hopefully, I can come home with a different shade of medal.”
Armed with a heightened thankfulness for all that the sport has offered him and an understanding of just how fortunate he is to still be able to compete today, McMorris represents Canada with a level of resilience, gratitude, and maturity that few athletes ever have.
“I’ve grown into a more appreciative snowboarder and a more driven athlete,” he reflects. “I definitely have a greater appreciation for what I do than I ever have. Going through some major injuries definitely helped that come to fruition. I wake up grateful for what I do every day. I don’t want it to ever end but it will someday, so I definitely have to soak it up.”
As we near his third Olympic appearance, Canadians have the privilege of watching yet another chapter of the snowboarder’s life play out before their very eyes. This time, perhaps we should mirror his adopted approach and practice the same gratitude. The constant composure and undying resilience from extreme sports athletes like Hawk, Hamilton, and McMorris make them seem ageless as if their long flowing hair and youthful smiles will never fade. But if the past few years have taught McMorris anything, it’s that no career lasts forever. All you can do is stay prepared, soak up each moment as it comes, and enjoy the ride.
“It’s snowboarding, at the end of the day,” he laughs. “You’re riding a big piece of wood down a mountain, so you might as well enjoy it.”