With less than a year to go before the 2018 Winter Olympics begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Canadian professional snowboarder Spencer O’Brien exudes optimism. Already a highlight event of ESPN’s popular Winter X Games, the big air competition will make its Olympic debut next year as part of the Olympics Games’ snowboarding program.
When I sat down to talk with O’Brien over Skype, she was both exuberant and fatigued. Less than a week after contending in an Olympic qualifier in the Czech Republic, she was high in the Italian Alps participating in the Suzuki Nine Royals winter sports showcase event.
The 29-year-old X Games veteran and five-time medalist has spent years advocating for the event’s incorporation into the Winter Olympics roster, and she is confident that big air will be a huge hit at Pyeongchang.
It is also the event that drew O’Brien to the sport originally. “I watched it [while] growing up,” she said. “It was one of the first events I ever watched at X Games: Women’s Big Air.”
Considered an extreme version of slopestyle, big air sees snowboarders launch themselves from an enormous jump and attempt to attain maximum height and distance, hence the name ‘big air.’ They’re expected to perform a trick mid-air, and achieve a clean landing at the base.
As in other snowboarding events, tricks are panel-judged for style, difficulty, and execution.
The three-run structure of big air allows athletes more latitude and creativity, spurring on advances in the sport as athletes push the boundaries on the big stage. If the snowboarder aces their routine on each of the first two sets, the third is essentially a bonus round which cannot hurt their established score. According to O’Brien, that’s where the breakthroughs happen.
“You have this very unique opportunity to try something different and push yourself… [and] it usually works out in people’s favour,” she said. “There are these massive spikes in progression because of the big air contests. My friend [Austrian snowboarder] Anna Gasser just won the world championships in Spain with a backside double 1080, which no one has ever done in competition before… So it’s pretty cool in that regard.”
O’Brien moved to the snowy slopes of Whistler, B.C. at 17-years-old and homeschooled herself through the Grade 12 curriculum. These qualities carried her from a disappointing finish nearly four years ago at the Sochi Olympics to where she is today.
As the reigning world champion in the X Games slopestyle event, O’Brien entered Sochi as a podium favourite in the competition, the only Canadian of eight athletes to reach the final round.
But after missteps in her landing techniques on both runs, O’Brien placed last in heartbreaking fashion. The result compelled Canadian astronaut and social media star Chris Hadfield to address O’Brien in a moving tweet: “Snowboarder @spencerobrien feels the weight of Canada on her shoulders in Sochi. Spencer – feel our pride & respect.”
The devastation on O’Brien’s inconsolable face is likely seared onto the minds of the countless Canadians who tuned in to watch the Games — it is, at least, something that I can’t forget. After waking up at 3:30 am in Toronto to catch her event, I watched her disappointing exit from the slopes of Sochi with an inflamed heart.
In the years since, O’Brien has competed harder than ever in the annual X Games championships and the recent string of Olympic qualifying events, while also asserting a steady preeminence in the women’s slopestyle and big air events.
The health problems that shadowed her path to Sochi have since been reigned in, and she is feeling better and readier than ever — not that there was ever a question of whether or not she would contend on the Olympic stage again in 2018.
“It was just a no-brainer. Right away, I was like, ‘I’m definitely going to go again,’” she said in reference to her loss in 2014. “I kind of need a rebate,” she added with a laugh.
O’Brien has a busy 10 months ahead of her. Another Olympic qualifier in New Zealand in September is sandwiched between extended training camps in Whistler and Switzerland, along with dry land training throughout autumn. “And then it’s really go time,” she said. “I just can’t believe it’s less than a year away.” The 2018 Olympic Games’ opening ceremonies are slated for February 9.
Canada will send a total of 20 athletes to Pyeongchang for snowboarding events, eight of whom will specialize in both the slopestyle and big air events. “The girls have been doing super well this year,” she said of her fellow slopestyle and big air athletes. “I think we’re going to send at least three women [to Pyeongchang], which is awesome.”
Before she rushed off to a team dinner, O’Brien went out onto the balcony of her chalet to give me a panoramic evening view from her phone. A spectrum of violet-blue-red burned above the stark-white peaks of the surrounding Alps and their snowy slopes. Even through the blocky pixelation of the image signalling the tenuousness of our Wi-Fi connection, I was still able to see the beauty of her backdrop.
“When we got to the hotel, it’s like, ‘how does this place exist?’” she said with a laugh. “Every time I come here it’s mind-blowing… I’m pretty lucky.”