King of the Hill: The growth of pro snowboarder Mark McMorris
Leading up to the Big Air and Slopestyle events at the 2015 Winter X Games, when Mark McMorris wasn’t at practice, he was spending most of his time at Burton House, his Aspen abode during the competition. The night before McMorris won the first of his two medals on the Big Air jump, he laid on a massage table getting his legs treated by his personal trainer, pensively staring into the ceiling as he spoke about the coming challenges.
“Until this point, it’s been about preparing as well as I can, which I believe I’ve done,” McMorris said that day. “Now, I can go out there and do my best and have no regrets. That’s the cool part.”
The next day he won gold in both events for the second time in his career, a mere glimpse of a very successful 2015 season for McMorris. But this time around, there was a slightly different feel to his dominance. Max Parrot and Stale Sandbech gave McMorris a run for his money in the Big Air and Slopestyle events respectively. He was able to prevail in both because he was armed with more than just raw talent.
Since making his pro-circuit debut in 2009, McMorris has established himself as one of the best snowboarders in the world. Winter X Games, Burton European Open, Burton US Open, Winter Olympics, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore—he enters every competition with a target on his back, and more times than not, he's able to deliver.
“Mark has a lot of pressure from all of his prior achievements. He does such a good job of being the guy to beat and still winning,” says Coco Ho, a professional surfer and McMorris’s girlfriend. “Everyone, even in my sport, focuses in their own way. I can tell when the stress and tension are building in him, but he just handles it so well.”
McMorris says that what seems like ice running through his veins during competitions is as God-given as his snowboarding talent.
“When you have that natural motivation to perform in competition, you just want it more than you do in practice or freeriding,” says McMorris. “Now that I’m expected to win, it just makes me want to do that much better and work hard to keep having those kinds of moments.”
The talent that McMorris possesses has never been a question; his cool demeanor under pressure is well documented. That’s enough to be a flash in the pan, but not to sustain dominance. To reach the apex of the snowboarding world and stay there as tenaciously as he has requires more than talent. It requires a level of maturity that can be difficult to find in a teenager having the world thrown at his feet.
Since McMorris first introduced himself to the world at the FIS World Cup in his native Canada at 16 years old, his maturity and mental fortitude have kept pace with his snowboarding. McMorris heeds the lessons he learned early in his career, and they’ve served him well so far and will continue to lead him to podiums and medals in the future.
Lesson number one was mortality. In 2012, three years into his career, an 18-year-old McMorris was coming off of his first double-gold-medal performance at Winter X Games. Later that year, complications from a kidney condition Mark was was born with led him from the X Games podium to the operating table. McMorris had a stent implanted in his body which shut down his snowboarding activities. Afterwards, McMorris realized the importance of taking care of his body and followed through on that epiphany with a total lifestyle change.
“I had to step away from something that I really loved doing,” McMorris says. “I wanted to come back bigger and faster and better than ever, that process made me realize that my body is my temple and I needed to start treating it as such.”
Post surgery, McMorris spent two weeks in Hawaii with snowboarding and Burton legend Terje Haakonsen. Haakonsen has a reputation for being rigorous in his self-maintenance.
“In all the time I spent with Terje, nothing but good things were going into our bodies,” McMorris recalled. “I’d never felt so good.”
McMorris's new health focused lifestyle led him to lesson number two: self-maintenance.
In 2012, RedBull, McMorris’s sponsor, connected him with Damien Moroney, a strength and conditioning coach who worked with the company’s athletes. During the time that they’ve worked together, Moroney’s goal has been to build McMorris up from a physical standpoint to allow him to express himself the way he desires out on the slopes. McMorris is well aware of the importance Moroney plays in his career.
“When I first started riding, I was just a kid. I could be in whatever shape I wanted," says McMorris. "After my surgery, I started eating healthy and treating my body really well. That’s made my level of riding skyrocket. With what I’m doing now, I need to be healthy and in really good shape. The stakes are a lot higher.”
Moroney has watched that understanding lead Mark to positive changes in his habits and decisions. He applauds McMorris’s maturity and says it makes his job easier.
“Without question, Mark has matured physically and mentally since I met him," Moroney says. "He was obviously an amazing snowboarder prior to my working with him, but he’s taken on a lot of aspects of professionalism in what he does. He eats really well, he does yoga, and he stretches. He maintains his strength and conditioning on the road as well as in blocks of training. It all helps him out there.”
The final lesson McMorris expressed was the importance of keeping good people in his circle. Despite her own schedule, Coco was at a couple of Mark's events to support him. He went to Japan with fellow X Gamer Danny Davis to take a moment to enjoy casually snowboarding for before competition season to find his focus.
"I’ve built my leisure life around the thing that is and has always been everything to me, snowboarding. I set that as my main goal and priority, and it’s kind of brought me everything else,” McMorris says. “I’ll work every day until it’s all over, then I can just hang out and enjoy the awesome experiences I had and the life I’ll keep when the competitions are over.”