Chris Corning's rise from unknown snowboarder to Olympic medal hopeful
It started with a question posed in an article:
"Who the F is Chris Corning?"
Corning quickly embraced it, turning that query into an amusing hashtag and adding it to most of his Instagram posts. A good reminder of how he had suddenly, and unexpectedly, begun taking the snowboarding world by storm.
After the 2018 Winter Olympics, a lot more people around the country may come to know the answer to that question.
A relative unknown in the snowboard industry just two years ago, Corning has had a colossal rise. His name is now being mentioned as a medal contender in slopestyle and big air for the Olympics, but it's all happened so fast that the hype still hasn't fully caught up yet.
"I still kind of feel under the radar," Corning said last month.
Like many kids who grow up in Colorado, Corning was on the slopes at a young age. He was skiing at age 3 and then snowboarding at age 7. He drove with his father from Denver to the mountains almost every weekend during the winters, often having to sit in several hours of traffic on the way home.
As Corning progressed, he was invited to join U.S. Snowboarding's rookie team for the 2015/16 season, but he turned down the offer because he wanted to stay with his coach at the time.
"Before I got the rookie invite, I was, like, getting last [place] at amateur events," Corning recalled.
But that winter proved to be a turning point in his career.
He started off the season by winning a slopestyle contest in New Zealand.
A few months later, he had a major breakthrough while attending the slopestyle Olympic test event that was held in PyeongChang.
Corning had been practicing a version of the triple cork — a trick that riders are practically required to have in their slopestyle runs these days if they hope to crack the podium — but prior to the test event in PyeongChang, he said that he had struggled to put that trick down in actual contests.
There in Korea though, he successfully landed the backside triple cork 1440 in his run and has been able to use it in almost every competition since then.
Corning credits his ability to land bigger tricks such as the triple cork with more consistency as the leading factor in his rise.
His results in New Zealand and Korea helped him earn a Crystal Globe in 2016 as the FIS World Cup slopestyle champion. He also won dual gold at the junior world championships in both slopestyle and big air.
But with the majority of his success taking place in Europe on the FIS (International Ski Federation) circuit, Corning remained largely off the radar of the U.S.-based snowboard industry, which was more focused on domestic contests such as X Games, an event that Corning had never received an invite to compete at until this year.
So, did he feel like he was being overlooked?
"For sure," Corning said. "I mean, I got eighth place at the U.S. Open [in 2016] and I've been able to keep up with a lot of guys, but I just haven't really had the exposure on Instagram and social media and stuff like that. It was always like, okay, I'm going to have to throw more tricks, harder tricks to be able to keep up with those guys, just to be able to get into finals."
Before the 2016/17 season, Corning was invited to join the U.S. snowboard team again — but this time as a member of the pro team. He accepted the offer.
By the end of the winter, the snowboard world was finally starting to take notice of Corning thanks in part to his showing at the Burton U.S. Open. After qualifying for the final, Corning put down a heavy run that was ultimately good enough for fifth place. On another run, he landed a frontside 1620, one of the biggest tricks currently being done in slopestyle.
It was his performance that week which prompted the aforementioned shout-out in a TransWorld SNOWboarding article and left everyone wondering where this kid came from.
"Last year, it was like everything clicked," Corning said. "My runs started to be good enough to get my name recognized. Being able to put runs down that are big enough to do that has been really good and that's been a confidence booster."
After winning a pair of medals at the senior world championships (silver in big air, bronze in slopestyle) and defending his junior world title in slopestyle, Corning set about learning new tricks in preparation for the current Olympic season.
In June, he became the first American to land a backside quad cork 1800 — a mind-blowing trick with five full rotations and four inverts that is part of the next level of progression in big air snowboarding. And he even learned the trick without trying it on an airbag first.
"Learning a quad was a crazy experience to say the least," Corning told snowboard.com. "It took me four tries and I got it on the fifth. I had a bloody face from over-rotating one try and a swollen eye to go along with that."
Corning said that he also worked on a frontside 1800 over the summer. He has not yet attempted that trick, or the quad, in a contest.
Very few riders have landed a quad in training, and even fewer have landed one in a big air contest. Norway's Marcus Kleveland and Canada's Max Parrot both debuted quads at X Games last year, but it's uncertain if any quads will be seen in PyeongChang.
"It totally depends on what the jump is built like," Corning said. "If it is poppy enough, then there's a good chance. But if it's flat, it's pretty hard to do [a quad]."
That didn't stop Corning from attempting a quad while practicing for December's U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, an event that served as an Olympic qualifier for the U.S. slopestyle and big air snowboard team.
Toward the end of practice, Corning said that he tried a quad and landed on his back. It left him hurting but did not stop him from competing.
During the big air contest, he landed cleanly on his first jump, a frontside 1440 melon, then collapsed in pain at the bottom. For about three minutes, Corning was down on the ground surrounded by medics, but he got back up and ultimately returned to the top of the course for his second run.
After stomping his second jump, a backside triple cork 1440 melon, Corning finished in second place and was the top U.S. rider in the competition, putting him halfway to Olympic qualification.
The next week, Corning was in Breckenridge, Colo., for another Olympic qualifier. The back injury he had suffered continued to linger, and as a result, he said that he only practiced on the slopestyle course for about 30 minutes.
"Pretty much whenever [I] land, it's just like a shooting pain in [my] back, right at [my] hip," Corning explained.
Despite that, he went out and finished in second place once again, besting many of the sport's top slopestyle riders, including Sochi Olympic medalists Mark McMorris and Stale Sandbech.
That result also made him the first rider to secure his nomination onto the U.S. Olympic snowboard team for men's slopestyle and big air. He will have the opportunity to compete in both events in PyeongChang.
"It's been not what I expected by any means, and it happened so fast," Corning said of his ascent. "Last year I definitely didn't know it was going to happen, and then all of a sudden, it did. It's been like a smack in the face, like, 'All right, it's time to go!'"
A year or two ago, Team USA's medal hopes in slopestyle and big air did not look promising. Sage Kotsenburg won a surprise gold medal in Sochi but has since retired from competitions to focus on filming video parts instead.
For many years, riders from Canada and Norway have typically dominated the podiums. Canada's two most successful competitors, McMorris and Parrot, have accrued a combined 24 X Games medals so far. Norway also boasts a number of Olympic medal hopefuls with Kleveland, Sandbech and Mons Roisland.
But the conversation is beginning to shift thanks to Corning, who has established himself as a viable medal contender for the U.S. — if he's able to manage the back pain that still continues to limit his training.
"Everybody has a chance to win," he said. "It just depends on the day and who's feeling it."
And if he's feeling it in PyeongChang, then rest assured, you'll find out exactly who he is.
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