PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Watching the two heats of men's snowboard big air qualifiers Wednesday morning was like watching two different contests. In the first heat, every rider who grabbed one of six qualifying spots landed a variation of a triple cork 1440 and scored between 85 and 92.5. Canadian Max Parrot, who topped Heat 1, was the only rider to spin the trick frontside and all three Americans in Heat 1 -- Kyle Mack, Chris Corning and Red Gerard -- advanced to the final.
And then there was Heat 2.
"It was way more of a scene," said Canadian favorite Mark McMorris, who qualified with a second-run score of 95.75, the third-highest score in the second heat. "It was crazy."
Entering the second runs in the second heat, McMorris sat in fifth position after landing the same trick Parrot used to win Heat 1. "I went big, I didn't put my hands on the ground, and I was in fifth," McMorris said. "There were a lot bigger names in the second heat and that's the luck of the draw. It's too bad, though, about the order they take the qualifiers. They take six from the first heat and six from our heat and it doesn't matter about scores."
To explain: In Wednesday's qualifier, 36 riders were divided into two heats of 18 by a random draw. That's why three of the four Americans rode in the first heat and three of the four Canadians competed in the second. Riders were given two attempts to land their biggest trick, best score counted, and the riders with the top six scores from each heat advanced to the final, not the riders with the top 12 scores overall.
Had the 12 best overall scores been used for qualifying purposes, Canadian Tyler Nicholson, who missed making the top six in Heat 2 by 0.75, would have qualified ninth overall. Peetu Piroinen of Finland would have sneaked in with the 12th spot, but instead finished eighth in Heat 2. Swiss rider Michael Schaerer and Gerard, who finished fifth and sixth in Heat 1, would not have made the final cut.
Six of the top seven overall scores were awarded in Heat 2.
"Realistically, the top three guys from our heat should drop last in finals," McMorris said, correctly noting that the top three riders in Heat 2 had the top three overall scores. "But whatever. That's just not how it's going to go."
Snowboard judging is subjective, the scores slightly irrelevant and used only for the purpose of placing riders in the order in which the judges believe they finished. It is next to impossible to compare scores from one competition to those from another. But this was two halves of the same competition held on the same day. And the scoring in big air is much less complicated than it is in say, slopestyle. Riders perform one trick on one jump. In this instance, it is reasonable to compare the scores from each heat side by side.
Because each heat stood on its own, a less competitive heat had the potential to send riders to the final who might not have made the final otherwise. (See: Schaerer and Gerard.) But those riders could argue they would have thrown heavier tricks had their hands been forced, as they were in Heat 2, when riders like Carlos Garcia Knight of New Zealand, who had never made a big air final in his career, landed a switch backside 1620, a trick he'd never attempted in competition, and earned a 97.50, the highest score of the day.
"I planned to throw that trick in qualifiers because I wanted a trick that would secure me a spot in finals," Garcia Knight said. "I knew I had it in me. Qualifiers is for the Hail Mary. Finals is for landing two tricks."
Because riders must attempt two different tricks in the final, the format favors more well-rounded riders. But first, they had to get there. "The [Olympics] need to maybe adopt the finals format for the qualifiers because a lot of these guys can do one big trick but don't have anything else," McMorris said. "But they landed that trick and made the final."
McMorris said he believes it will take two triple-cork 1620 variations to win on Saturday, but a rider like Parrot, who could land an 1800 and a 1440 variation, could top the podium as well. Mack, a rider who's known for his stylish riding and unique grabs, including a risky double-handed grab called a bloody Dracula, is also a podium threat. "The judges are looking for a different kind of style and perfect execution from top to bottom and hopefully I can pull that off," Mack said. "Hopefully they reward something different that no one else can really do."
And then there's the question of the quad. Parrot has landed a quadruple underflip in competition and the UK's Billy Morgan, who qualified sixth in Heat 2, was the first rider ever to land a quadruple cork. Most riders say the jump is possibly too small to attempt a quad, but they also know what happens in the heat of competition.
"When the stage is set, a lot of people do their best," McMorris said. "I'm excited to see somebody try a quad, because if they can get it around, godspeed. At the same time, I've been losing sleep at night wondering, 'Should I try one?' We'll see."