Holy shit, what a contest! And what a result for Britain’s Billy Morgan. Putting down his biggest tricks on the biggest stage of them all, the man from Southampton proved once and for all that he is one of the world’s best freestyle riders.
“I didn't think I could win a medal, it’s just blown my mind," he said afterwards. Modest as ever, Billy was surprised. But he needn’t have been.
By his own admission, Morgan has sometimes struggled for acceptance among some snowboarders, in part because of his background. “I wasn’t one of the cool kids," he told the Looking Sideways podcast in the run up to the games. Hailing from the UK, a country not known for its snowboarding culture, was a problem. So was the fact that he did acrobatics as a kid, as if that somehow gave him an unfair advantage.
“I didn't think I could win a medal, it’s just blown my mind"
Even when Billy was landing tricks that had never been done before - the triple rodeo, the quad cork - he was copping flack online. Armchair analysts who somehow seemed to think that a dude who learned on dryslopes “snowboarding for the sheer love of it," and honed his skills doing seasons in Morzine, didn’t realise that a “floaty backside 180" was considered more stylish.
But if winning a Big Air medal today wasn’t enough to silence his critics, then the manner in which it was won should be. Billy didn’t spin the most degrees this morning in the Alpensia ski jumping stadium. But his tricks were massive, lofted like howitzer shells waaaay down the landing, and clean - all things the judges were looking out for. Most importantly, they were also stylish.
Speaking to Mpora after the event, Iztok Sumatic, one of the judges, said Billy’s medal was “well deserved. Great style, and full send!"
The size of Billy’s hits and his habit of mixing up his grabs had caught the judges’ eye in qualification earlier in the week, Iztok said. “[He] spiced things up with a strong nose grab, which added a bit of variety compared to all the mutes and melons." So while Billy might have felt privileged to ride in the final, especially when much-fancied riders like Stale Sandbech didn’t make it, there was little doubt that he deserved to be there.
One look at the podium, which included Kyle Mack (who cranked out an unusual Bloody Dracula grab) and Seb Toots (who also sent his tricks deep down the landing) is enough to tell you that Morgan’s combination of style and send to was what the judges were looking for.
"His tricks were massive, lofted like howitzer shells waaaay down the landing, and clean"
What really made the difference today though was his ability to handle the pressure. Having failed to put down his first run, Billy had to land the second two. Yet he looked relaxed if anything, pulling faces for the camera between runs. “I’ve just come to enjoy [the Olympics] really," he’d told Mpora earlier in the week. And it looked like he was.
His “opening a can of beer" celebration when he landed the third run was reminiscent of Dan Wakeham’s legendary “let’s have a pint" move at Turin 2006. The first British male snowboarder to go to the Olympics would doubtless have approved. But the difference this time was that the man from the underdog nation ended up on the podium.
“I used to work on building sites to pay for my winters," Billy said in the press conference after the event. “I almost miss it, getting my shirt off, working on the roofs." How many of the other riders who rode in today’s final could say the same?
And yet as bigger names dropped, and one after one failed to land or improve their score, it became clear that Billy was in with a chance of holding on to third place. Finally only Max Parrot, one of the most consistent riders in snowboarding and the slopestyle silver medalist, stood between Billy and and the bronze. The fact that he capitulated and fell twice, on a trick he has on lock, puts Billy’s achievement into context.
As Lesley McKenna, GB Park & Pipe director and a former Olympian herself, said: “[He] had done everything he could to put himself in the best position possible. This morning was all about rising to the occasion." Billy Morgan did that and then some.