PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — It was just two years ago that a giant big air ramp suddenly rose up above Fenway Park’s Green Monster, and the world’s best snowboarders arrived in Boston to showcase a fast-rising discipline within an already popular sport.
And as is often the case with snowboarding, the buzzword was progression. Riders talked about the progression of their tricks, and organizers talked about the progression of the sport.
This week, the sport’s progression reached a new level as Big Air made its debut at the Olympics, one of four new sports at these Games. It played to a packed house that included President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, on Saturday, with Canadian Sebastien Toutant winning the first men’s Big Air gold medal.
“I think it’s a big day for snowboard, it’s a big contest, and I think that everyone who got on to the podium showed a lot of style and showed a lot of tricks. Hopefully a lot of fans out there discovered a new passion, a new sport,” said Toutant.
Lighting a fire with fans was the goal of holding a big contest at Fenway Park back in 2016. It already had been added to the Olympics program, and US Ski and Snowboard officials wanted to get the word out.
“Our mission with the Fenway Group was how do we bring this new Olympic sport into an environment that really will move the needle from an exposure point of view,” said Calum Clark, US Ski and Snowboard’s vice president of events. “So from our side, the US Ski and Snowboard side, what that event did is it put it squarely in the minds of the mainstream media who said, ‘OK what the heck is this thing that is now an Olympic sport?’ ”
Saturday’s Big Air capped an Olympics at which snowboarding — particularly American snowboarding — has enjoyed a massive share of the spotlight. There were early gold medals claimed by a pair of 17-year-old rising stars, first Red Gerard in the men’s slopestyle, then Chloe Kim in women’s halfpipe. Arielle Gold took the bronze in women’s halfpipe.
Then the biggest name of all in snowboarding, Shaun White, triumphed in his signature event, the men’s halfpipe, but that was followed by the glare of an even more intense spotlight regarding sexual abuse allegations and White’s initially dismissive response to them.
Snowboarding even stole a bit of Alpine skiing’s thunder when Ester Ledecka, primarily a parallel giant slalom snowboarder, grabbed a pair of skis and won the women’s super-G race after some already had declared Austria’s Anna Veith the winner.
The US team continued its success in snowboarding with a pair of silver medals in the Big Air competitions. Jamie Anderson, who won slopestyle gold in the first week, was second in Thursday’s women’s event, and Kyle Mack was second Saturday.
Mack said success by his American teammates served as motivation.
“I always knew that it was possible, but to see all that Red went through kind of helped me, gave me lots of encouragement and made me want to be up there with him so that I could share some moments with one of my best friends. And now I’m here,” he said.
Mack, 21, didn’t recall when he first learned that Big Air had been added to the Olympics program, but he was thrilled to be a part of it.
“There’s a lot of different opinions out there about whether [Big Air] should be in it or not, and what it is about,” Mack said. “I kind of like it in because it kind of helps the progression of snowboarding.”
With only a few events remaining in the Olympics, the US stood at 22 medals, with one more – either gold or silver in men’s curling – guaranteed. Of those 23 medals, snowboarders accounted for seven.
“We’re killing it right now, I’m super stoked on how we’ve all done with Chloe Kim, Red Gerard, Jamie Anderson,” Mack said after posting two stellar scores on his first two jumps before falling on his last attempt. “We have such a strong team right now that it’s so sweet and we’re all still so young, so we have so much time to progress and I expect all of us will be back at the next one.”Follow Matt Pepin on Twitter at @mattpep15.