Nico Porteous has dropped the curtain on New Zealand’s greatest ever Winter Games, overcoming the elements and a field of established champions to win the Olympic freeski halfpipe title. The 20-year-old from the South Island resort town of Wanaka soared and spun to New Zealand’s second ever gold medal at a Winter Olympics on Saturday, two weeks to the day after Zoi Sadowski-Synnott’s history-making first.
Remarkably, only 12 of the 91 nations competing at the Beijing Games have managed to win more golds than two Kiwi athletes from a tiny lakeside hamlet. “We both come from a town of ten thousand people, and skiing and snowboarding is our passion,” Porteous said. “We just absolutely love it. When Zoi won her gold in slopestyle it was such a motivational moment for myself. I really, really, really wanted it, and that just made me put my head down and really work hard.”
Porteous didn’t win halfpipe’s most prestigious contest so much as survive it. On a blustery morning in the mountain village of Taizicheng, contestants were strewn across the course after crashes and many were left wondering if the competition should have been postponed. Had it not been the final event at the Genting Snow Park with Sunday’s closing ceremony fast approaching, it might have been.
Unlike four years ago in Pyeongchang when he won a surprise bronze as a teenage outsider, Porteous went off as the hot favourite in Saturday’s final. Twelve entrants made three trips each down the 200m-long course known as the Secret Garden with the best score counting towards their finishing position.
The reigning world and X Games champion immediately made good on advance billing, setting the target with a score of 93.00 that none of his rivals could approach. Porteous then more or less held on for dear life amid whipping gusts and a bitterly cold wind chill that dropped to -32C (-26F) and at times made a mockery of the competition.
David Wise, the two-time defending Olympic champion from the United States, settled for the silver with a best score of 90.75 on his opening run, denied in his bid to join speed skater Bonnie Blair as the only Americans to win three straight golds in the same Winter Games event. Another American, Alex Ferreira, was four points adrift of Wise and added bronze to his Pyeongchang silver, completing a repeat of the podium from four years ago with the order reshuffled.
“I can’t really describe it, to be honest,” Porteous said. “I’m so, so happy and I’m currently over the moon. I still can’t really believe it. The weather conditions were tough today. It was very slow and it was quite challenging. But I stomped what I knew and tried my best and left everything out there.”
Porteous’s winning run on his first descent saw him launch high above the seven-metre walls on back-to-back double cork 1620s – the consecutive four-and-a-half-revolution manoeuvres only he has landed in competition – capped by an alley-oop 900 for a score of 93.00. It was more than enough to overtake Wise, the early frontrunner who recorded the only other score above 90 on the day with an opening run capped by back-to-back double cork 1240s.
On a day when half of the 36 total runs were completed without a fall, the swirling winds made it practically impossible for the field to mount scoreboard pressure on the leader. No one in the field, including Porteous himself, managed a higher score on their final two attempts than Canada’s Noah Bowman, whose 84.75 on his second trip earned him fourth place on the day, two points out of the medals.
“I had so much prepared,” Wise lamented. “It’s like I cooked a meal for everybody and I didn’t get to share it.”
Not even the champion-elect was spared from the carnage. Porteous failed to complete his final two runs, emerging with blood trickling from his right ear after hitting his head while attempting a double-cork 1440 on his final try.
Gus Kenworthy, the US-born freestyler who earned a silver medal in slopestyle for the US eight years ago but represented Great Britain at these Olympics after switching affiliations, was among several skiers who declared the punishing conditions a difference-maker. “The wind was the deciding factor for everyone,” said Kenworthy, who finished eighth. “Even the guys who are on top, they put down incredible runs – it was awesome to see – but they have all scaled back from what I think they were hoping to do. I certainly scaled back from what I was hoping to do.”
Four years ago, Porteous and Sadowski-Synnott arrived in the Taebaek Mountains as fresh-faced upstarts looking to make their mark on the world stage. Sadowski-Synnott’s bronze in the big air, only 12 days before her 17th birthday, ended her country’s 26-year medal drought. It also made her New Zealand’s youngest ever Olympic medallist, a record that proved short-lived when Porteous, then 16, took halfpipe bronze less than two hours later.
On Saturday, Porteous extended the legacy of the golden Kiwi pair forever bound in history by putting the finishing touches on a New Zealand masterpiece. “A halfpipe is a skier’s canvas,” he said. “It’s our opportunity to express ourselves in the form of skiing. It’s our art form.”