PYEONGCHANG, South Korea - The last time New Zealand won a Winter Olympics medal, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous hadn't been born yet. On Thursday, the pair of 16-year-olds won back-to-back bronzes in women's snowboard big air and men's ski halfpipe to grab their country's first medals in 26 years.
Sadowski-Synnott, who moved from Australia to New Zealand when she was six, came to big air unsatisfied with her 13th-place finish in slopestyle, her preferred event, earlier in the Games. The event was her last chance to showcase her best tricks on the Olympic stage. "After the slopestyle, I was rather disappointed," she said, "so our game-plan was to get those first two tricks done. We didn't care about the outcome, and just do our best."
She received 65.50 points for her first run, a double wildcat, but it was her second run, a switch backside 900, that propelled her into medal contention. She earned 92 points, the second-highest individual score of the day. (Big air is determined by the two best scores out of three runs.) She then pulled out all the stops by trying a trick she'd never landed in competition, a frontside 1080. She didn't quite get it that time either, but her first two scores were enough to secure the bronze.
"I knew for my third run I could just do what I wanted and try something I've never done before," she said. "I tried my best but couldn't quite put it down."
Thursday's competition was in stark contrast to the slopestyle contest, where the women felt they weren't able to put forth their best performances due to the poor weather conditions. The level of competition and the difficulty of the skills in big air were much more what they wanted to show the world.
"For all the girls it was such a good show. After slopestyle everyone needed this today," said gold medalist Anna Gasser from Austria. "Everyone wanted to show their best tricks, and today was one of the highest levels in girls snowboarding I've ever seen."
Hours after Sadowski-Synnott's performance, Porteous became only the third athlete from New Zealand, and the first man, to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. On his second run in ski halfpipe finals, Porteous landed a monster run that included six hits and a double cork 1440; when his score dropped, he was in first place with a 94.80. When he saw his score, Porteous grabbed his helmet and let out a scream. "Despite our best efforts to keep him calm, it was a mind-blowing experience to even be here, much less know he had a chance at a medal," said Bud Keene, impact coach for the New Zealand freeski and snowboard teams.
When Porteous dropped in to take his third run, he was in second place behind Alex Ferreira of the U.S. He decided not to take his third run. Instead, he slashed his way down the pipe, choosing to wait and see how his second-run score would hold up. "His first run was the best run of his life," Keene said. "His second run was another level up, the best run of his life. He didn't think he had another run in him. He just felt like he put it all on the table and it worked out and he wanted to savor the moment."
Defending gold medalist David Wise took over the top spot with his final run, but Porteous's score was good enough to keep him on the podium and his bronze medal doubled New Zealand's medal tally at the Pyeongchang Games. "Doing the two best runs of my life back to back," Porteous said, "that's insane."
The Kiwis have another shot at a medal on Friday, as Carlos Garcia Knight drops into the men's big air contest. Can he make it three?