The New Guard of Slopestyle Snowboarding
It was the final run of the competition, the final jump of the run. Out of the blue sky came Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, a 20-year-old from New Zealand, and now the undisputed queen of slopestyle snowboarding.
She spun herself through the air with the second of back-to-back 1080s, knowing that a solid landing would win gold. She hit the ground hard but square. Her hands nearly dropped to the snow, then raised to the heavens in victory.
“The best run of my life,” Sadowski-Synnott said later, mostly proud to become the first athlete from New Zealand to ever win a gold medal at the Winter Games.
The other medalists instantly smothered her, a rolling pile of joy and relief in the snow, as the judges computed the winning score: a 92.8, just ahead of the American Julia Marino, who earned silver, and Tess Coady of Australia, thrilled to have bronze.
“She’s the one that’s taking the sport to the next level,” Marino said of Sadowski-Synnott. “I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
Yet there was a missing character in the drama. When the announcer introduced the three medalists to the smattering of fans at Genting Snow Park, a traditional bit of pomp and circumstance in front of a pandemic-cleared grandstand, American Jamie Anderson wasn’t mentioned.
The two-time gold medalist, the only woman to have previously won the slopestyle event at the Olympics, finished ninth.
“I feel so sad to not be able to put down a run, but I feel relieved that it’s over, because it’s a really high-stress week here,” Anderson said. “And I genuinely feel so happy for the girls.”
Each athlete had three chances to navigate a technical section of rails and a series of jumps, with the single best score declared the winner.
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Anderson was clumsy, by her best-in-history standards. On her first run, near the top of the course, she muffed a relatively simple landing off a rail feature, one built of snow blocks to evoke a section of the Great Wall. She fell onto her backside, slid back to her feet and coasted down the rest of the course.
Her final two runs never had the expected pop that Anderson has brought to snowboarding for more than a decade. Like the others in the slopestyle field, she will take part in the one-jump big air competition, more than a week away.
“I feel like I don’t want to freaking compete anymore, it’s so stressful,” Anderson said, adding that she hoped the result would provide motivation to “go kill it in big air and win a medal.”
The day before, in qualifying for the final, Anderson had seemed uncomfortable with the course, the cold temperatures and the swirling winds. She found the artificial snow uncharacteristically firm and unforgiving.
It was a bit warmer on Sunday, the day of the final, with a temperature of minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit at the start of the contest. Sadowski-Synnott got off to a hot start with a first-run score of 84.51 that her rivals spent the next two heats chasing.
Marino did catch up, bumping herself up to first place, and then Coady did too, temporarily shuffling Sadowski-Synnott to third.
Marino stayed in first place all the way to the end — a result that would have qualified as a surprise. The 24-year-old shot into slopestyle five years ago by winning the X Games as a rookie, and has been a solid top-tier presence on the circuit since. Earning a medal at these Olympics might have been a hope, but not an expectation.
When Sadowski-Synnott landed on the final jump, Marino knew she had been bumped down. She never showed a wink of disappointment.
“Any medal for me in the Olympics, I can’t be disappointed at all,” Marino said. “I just want to see my friends succeed and do well. To be a part of that means a lot to me.”
It was the first medal of any color won by an American at these Olympics. But the day belonged to Sadowski-Synnott. She beat Anderson two weeks earlier at the X Games in Aspen. She came to Beijing to avenge what she considered a major disappointment — a 13th-place finish at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, when she was just 16 but deemed a major up-and-coming talent.
Her victory at these Olympics affirms that she has supplanted Anderson as the queen of slopestyle, perhaps the start of a reign that stretches many years.
“A hundred percent, Jamie is absolutely amazing and continues to inspire me every step of the way,” Sadowski-Synnott said.
Anderson’s persona is that of a ray of sunshine, a bright-sider with a side of hippie. But the past year has been especially hard. The Caldor wildfire last summer chewed through more than 200,000 acres of the Sierra Nevada, near Lake Tahoe. Anderson’s family home was in the path, and her father, a retired firefighter, ignored evacuation orders to help protect it. The fire consumed Sierra-at-Tahoe, Anderson’s home ski area, which is now trying to rebuild.
She struggled to decide if she wanted to compete at these Games, given everything — the fire, the pandemic, the location in China, the energy it would consume in her life.
She went for it, then struggled uncharacteristically in competitions. She pulled it together in January, just in time for the X Games, where she finished second to Sadowski-Synnott in both slopestyle and big air. She became engaged to her longtime boyfriend, Tyler Nicholson, a Canadian snowboarder.
She did not say if these would be her last Olympics, the way Shaun White announced they would be his.
But her sport has been infused with youth, an echo of Anderson’s influence. In a world where the tricks just get harder, the toughest thing is getting better as you get older.
“Even if I was a little bit of that inspiration for some of the younger girls,” Anderson said, “I feel so proud and so grateful.”