PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – Jamie Anderson finished her run, glanced up at the scoreboard and stuck out her tongue for the world to see, a gesture not made out of frustration but simple relief. The American snowboarding star had reached the bottom of wind-whipped Phoenix Snow Park in the women’s slopestyle finals intact and upright.
On a day where conditions were tricky at best and treacherous at worst – one that left many in the 25-woman final wondering what they were even doing there in the first place – it was more than enough for Anderson to make Olympic history.
The 27-year-old from California became the first female snowboarder to win two Olympic golds, successfully defending the title she won in Sochi four years ago by putting up an 83.00 during the first of her two runs. It was more than enough to top a field more focused on mere survival than putting on a show.
Yet the enduring image from slopestyle’s second Olympic appearance won’t be Anderson beaming from the victory podium but the hour of carnage that preceded it as rider after rider either crashed or bailed or did some combination of the two.
Even Anderson wasn’t immune. She washed out in her second run with the gold already wrapped up.
Laurie Blouin of Canada took silver, with Finland’s Enni Rukajarvi finishing third, a testament more to their courage than their actual skill.
High winds scrubbed qualifying on Sunday, turning Monday’s final into a 26-woman, two-run free-for-all with Anderson, the top-ranked snowboarder in the world, scheduled to go last.
Officials pushed back the start due to weather concerns, and while the wind eventually calmed enough for the event to start following a 75-minute delay, the course ended up being an unpredictable mess anyway.
“I was trying to keep the spirits high, like, ‘Let’s run it,'” Anderson said. “A handful of the girls were like, ‘No it’s not safe’ and things like that. It’s not like what we’re doing is safe anyhow.”
Maybe, but there’s pushing the limit and then there’s trying to ride in the middle of what several competitors likened to a tornado.
Only nine of the combined 50 runs were anywhere close to clean. The event became like a NASCAR race with skis, only there was no caution flag in sight. The wind kept whipping. And the riders kept going. And falling. And flailing.
Sarka Pancochova of the Czech Republic set the tone when she led off by bailing at the top of the first of the three big air jumps at the bottom of the course, literally turning around as if to say “no thanks” before simply sliding down the hill. Pancochova openly wondered why officials thought it was OK to push back the Alpine events about an hour away but let the snowboarders try to make a go of it anyway.
“It’s a poor interpretation of women’s snowboarding because everybody is falling and nobody is making it through the landings and it’s just a bummer,” Pancochova said. “You’re qualifying for this for a very long time and then they run this? It’s like ‘Come on guys. We’re at the Olympics. You have more days you can run it.'”
Or maybe not. Austria’s Anna Gasser, one of the few riders courageous enough to try to “send it” by throwing in a double underflip that’s become routine in her sport over the last few years, said the women felt they had to compete on Monday regardless of the conditions.
“They kind of told us if we don’t go today there was no other day so every girl felt the pressure to go,” Gasser said.
Only five of the 25 riders made it through their first runs with anything close to a clean set and those who did – Anderson included – settled for more of a watered down routine that emphasized sanity over sizzle.
The most problematic spot appeared to be the second of the three jumps.
At times the wind socks that lined the course were perpendicular to the ground and the second jump appeared to be particularly vulnerable to gusts. Rukajarvi pointed thumbs down after smashing into the snow in her first run, and even Anderson stuck out her tongue in relief after completing her steady if hardly spectacular first trip down the hill.
Anderson headed back to the top to see if anyone could catch her. And while Blouin and Rukajarvi overcame first-run spills to reach the podium, Anderson’s score was never really challenged. Not on a day when blowing snow at times obscured the course from the few thousand fans jammed around the finish.
“It would have been cool to show that we girls are not that far apart, to show some style,” Gasser said. “I think today made us look way worse than we are.”
Gasser came to Pyeongchang with hopes of a medal. She ended up simply grateful that everyone walked, or limped, away largely unscathed.
“I’m glad nothing happened to me today,” Gasser said. “It could have went the other way.”