Anderson’s secret weapons tame conditions and the field to retain slopestyle gold

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ESPN – PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Jamie Anderson wanted to run the contest. And that might be the reason she won.

After Sunday’s qualifying round in women’s snowboard slopestyle was canceled due to high winds, all 26 riders advanced into the final. They arrived at Phoenix Snow Park on Monday morning to equally strong winds that delayed the start by more than an hour. Many of the women said they wanted to push the contest to another day, but when the winds calmed, they agreed to ride the practice session.

“And then it was go time,” said Anderson, the defending gold medalist from Sochi. The contest director had decided the event was safe to run, so Anderson decided to control what she could control: how she responded to the call. After the contest, several riders said they felt that the decision to run the event was irresponsible and the conditions were dangerous, but Anderson said when the decision was made, she put extra wax on her board to help with speed, did some deep breathing to calm her nerves and then went with the flow.

The American also had a pair of weapons on her side: a bulletproof mental game she’s been honing with meditation, breathing exercises and more than a decade of competition experience, and a coach with a background in wind sports posted up on the course down below.

“I took it one feature at a time and adapted with the weather,” Anderson said. “I felt strong wind as soon as I dropped in, but I knew I had to go with it. It’s not always going to be perfect.”

On Monday, the conditions were anything but. Wind gusts swirled around the course, with tail winds sending some riders deep into the landings and head winds making it difficult for others to even clear the jumps. By the time Anderson — the final rider to drop in the contest — took her first run, she’d watched all but four of her competitors fall on theirs. Still, she dropped in with the confidence she could land a solid safety run, which might be all she needed to win.

“You didn’t see any other athletes in the first run play it safe so they could push it in the next run,” said ski racer and four-time Olympian Julia Mancuso, who flew to Korea to support Anderson. “It speaks to her being a veteran and a legend in her sport. It’s easy to be the best when the conditions are perfect, but being able to shine when it’s windy and freezing and the moment really matters is what makes the Olympics so special.”

Go with the flow. Be in the moment. Breathe. Deal with what is.

Anderson speaks those words so frequently, they might as well be emblazoned next to the sponsor logos that typically adorn her helmet. Those aren’t just platitudes to the now-two-time Olympic gold medalist. They’re mantras by which she lives her life, and on Monday afternoon, they’re tools that allowed her to remain calm and focused despite conditions that were buckling the confidence of her most accomplished peers. “Watching your competitors struggle in the wind can make it more difficult to be in the moment and confident,” said U.S. snowboarding head coach Mike Jankowski. “This was a challenging day, but Jamie accepted that this was what was happening, kept her head in the game and put one down.”

An avid windsurfer who’s spent a considerable amount of time on the water and in the mountains, Jankowski spent the past week stationed on the left side of the third-rail feature during practice sessions with a bird’s-eye view of the course and the mountain’s ridgeline in his sight. He selected visual cues — specific trees and spots on the ridgeline — and then timed the wind gusts to see how long it took for them to travel from those spots to the jumps on the course.

“The other coaches held the riders in the start and waited for me to communicate that there was a lull in the wind before they dropped them,” Jankowski said. “For every big gust of wind, there’s a lull behind it. There’s a backside to the gusts. So we were timing the start so we would hit the lulls, and we were able to do that with quite a few of the riders. It’s not a perfect science, but that was huge for us.”

Because of those backside lulls, Jankowski often called for a rider to drop when the wind was swirling around the course. “We told them a big gust right before you go is good,” he said. “But seeing that gust and the snow all around them, it would be easy to lose confidence. Jamie’s experience helped her to not get spooked. She was able to be patient and smart.”

That goes for her trick selection in the first round, as well. No rider was able to land her biggest tricks, but Anderson decided quickly that wasn’t the goal of the day. Everyone wanted to showcase the sport to the world, show how far women’s slopestyle riding has progressed. Austrian rider Anna Gasser wanted to land the double corks she’d worked so hard to learn in the Mammoth Mountain airbag, and she went for one on both of her runs, despite the blustery conditions. Anderson had a dream run she’d been working on for more than a year, and she’d logged countless busted lips and black eyes in pursuit of new tricks. “I wanted to do a backside rodeo 540, a cab 900 and a frontside 10,” she said. “But that was in a perfect world.”

Accepting that Monday’s contest was not a perfect world, letting go of the expectations she carried to Pyeongchang and doing what she needed to do to win was perhaps Anderson’s biggest strength. When she knew she wouldn’t have the air time to pull off her cab 900, she adjusted — in the air — and settled for a cab 540. That adaptability has been arguably her biggest asset throughout her career.

“She works hard physically, but what I’m most amazed by is the mental and emotional aspect of what she does, staying grounded when the conditions are poor and it’s scary and dangerous,” said her older sister, Joanie Anderson, a former X Games champ in snowboardcross and one of 17 family members in Pyeongchang to cheer on Jamie.

“She’s worked so hard on her mental game. She felt the pressure in Sochi four years ago, so the pressure here was even more intense. She wanted this. I’m so proud of her. Two gold medals. I haven’t wrapped my mind around it yet.”