Zoi rides talent, luck to world slopestyle domination
There’s a saying in sport that it is better to be lucky than good.
It is, of course, best to be both - as Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, the newly crowned queen of snowboarding slopestyle, aptly demonstrated over an incredible few weeks in the United States that saw her claim the sport’s ‘triple crown’.
Having captured the X-Games, world championships and US Open titles in succession, the teenage Wanaka prodigy has seemingly come from nowhere to assert herself as the pre-eminent slopestyle female on the planet.
Sure, the talent was there for all to see when she soared her way into the history books with the country’s first Winter Olympics medal in 26 years last February. At 16 years 353 days, her bronze medal made her (albeit briefly, thanks to Nico Porteous’s heroics that same day) the country’s youngest ever Olympic medallist.
That moment of glory, though, came in the big air event. In slopestyle in Pyeongchang she placed a respectable, but hardly earth shattering, 13th.
Heading into the X-Games in Aspen, Colorado, in January, Sadowski-Synnott wasn’t even initially in the slopestyle field.
She’d been invited to compete in big air – fulfilling a lifelong dream in the process – but was listed as the first ‘alternate’ for slopestyle. She required another athlete to drop out just so she could make the start line.
That’s when the wheel of fortune first swung the young Kiwi’s way.
“[Competing at the X-Games] was my dream since I started snowboarding so I was just excited to be there,” Sadowski-Synnott tells LockerRoom during a whistlestop trip to visit her sister in Dunedin.
It wasn’t until the day before the slopestyle competition that she found out an injured athlete had withdrawn, meaning she would have the chance to add to the silver medal she picked up in the big air competition on the event’s opening day.
Few would have predicted that the last rider into the field would post a score of 90 for the first time in her career in her opening run, and then top that by a point in her final run to claim the gold medal.
Those in Sadowski-Synnott’s inner circle, however, were likely not all that surprised. Because slopestyle – an event where riders perform a series of jumps and tricks over various mind-boggling obstacles during a daredevil descent – is, in fact, her favoured discipline.
“Big air and slopestyle come hand-in-hand,” she explains. “It is not like you train specifically for big air or for slopestyle.
“You usually do your tricks in big air first and then transition them into slopestyle, because you have to worry about a whole run in slopestyle rather than just one trick.
“I love slopestyle a lot more than big air because you get a chance to really show what you're capable of.”
There was another key element to Sadowski-Synnott’s blitz of the North American swing of the sport’s pro tour. In her first full season, she cherry-picked her events carefully, passing on the chance to compete in Europe in favour of more training time.
“I decided this season that I would pick and choose which events I’d go to. I wanted to spend more time training than competing and just getting through it. I think that's one of the main reasons I did well – I can compete way better when I’ve had time to really dial in my tricks in practice.”
She was primed and ready, then, when fate smiled upon her at the X-Games in Aspen.
If there was an element of fortune for the 18-year-old at the X-Games, her world championship victory falls squarely into the 'unquestionably lucky' category.
The weather for the showpiece event in Park City, Utah, was atrocious. Sadowski-Synnott turned in a solid opening qualifying run to sit first at the completion of the round. The score held up as the weather deteriorated.
As the penultimate rider to go in the final qualifying run, she was guaranteed to qualify no lower than second. She should have opted for a risk-free run.
“But I wanted to put down a nine [snowboarding speak for a trick featuring 900 degrees of rotation] in my qualifying run," she says. "The weather was terrible and I was too focused on that, and I fell on one of my rails at the beginning.”
She smashed her head into the snow, hard enough to give herself concussion, and force her out of the finals. Or so she thought.
The weather gods intervened, forcing the cancellation of the finals, meaning Sadowski-Synnott would be crowned world champion on the strength of her opening qualifying run.
Fortunate? Absolutely. But in a sport where injury is only ever a tiny miscalculation away and the weather is consistently fickle, you make your own luck.
In a sport that also thrives on innovation, one might expect the most dangerous time to be when the athletes are attempting new tricks in training. But, for Sadowski-Synnott, it's during the heat of competition that the risk factor goes up. Training is precipitous, but the focus is 100 percent on what could go right or wrong.
In competition, that level of detail goes out the window. That’s what happened at the world champs.
“I just messed up,” she laughs.
“It's risk over reward in our sport. The big tricks, you can hurt yourself doing. So you have to weigh up the reward you are going to get from it. It is also about consistency, though, putting down your run. You have to pick and choose when you are going to do those tricks.”
To top the podium, boundaries must be pushed, new ground broken.
“The X-Games was the first time I did back-to-back 9s – 900s - sorry, technical term. I just say that as if it is a normal word, but it isn't!" Sadowski-Synnott laughs.
“That was like a personal best for me.”
There’s also a somewhat unique collective approach to furthering the sport. Sadowski-Synnott is well aware she is just one athlete among many driving women’s slopestyle forward, largely through bigger tricks on the jumps.
“That's been happening for the last few years. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
Remarkably, just five months ago Sadowski-Synott was saying her final farewells to her fellow Mt Aspiring College senior students. Following her Olympic breakthrough, she spent much of her time pining for and plotting her assault on the sport’s pro tour.
So far, then, so very good. She doesn’t go into the details of how lucrative her victories have been, other that to describe the prize money in competitions such as the X-Games as “crazy”.
One report out of the US, however, states that X-Games athletes this year competed for a total prize pool of $US3 million – and that event winner would pocket $US50,000. That would certainly amount to crazy money for an 18-year-old.
“All the money that I win pretty much goes back into my snowboarding,” she says. “It is quite fulfilling when you book some flights with money that you've earned.”
With the backing of sponsor Red Bull and High Performance Sport NZ, Sadowski-Synott hasn’t felt the pressure to win just to stay financially afloat – but it is not a low-cost sport.
Fun fact: even Olympic medallists and X-Games champions pay for their lift passes at ski fields.
“We sure do. We usually just buy season passes when we get the schedule at the start of the season. But I get looked after so well, which I am so grateful for," she says.
Having already knocked off one half of her stated career goal - to win X-Games and Olympic gold - so early in her career, Sadowski-Synott has found herself needing to recalibrate her sights.
The Winter Games in Queenstown in late August will be her sole event over what is effectively the sport’s off-season. She’ll then target a slopestyle/big air double at the 2020 X-Games.
“After that, looking really far forward, it is the Olympics [Beijing 2022], qualifying again and hopefully trying to repeat this past season.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that the historic nature of her achievements is a little lost on an athlete who didn’t experience the barren years that stretched into decades for alpine sports in this country.
For the likes of Sadowski-Synott, Porteous, young skiing sensation Alice Robinson – and an impressive clutch of others - success on the world stage, or at least the very real prospect of it, has long been their reality.
“For me this is kind of how it is because I grew up into it,” Sadowski-Synott says.
“I didn’t witness what was going on before my time. All the athletes now, we are pretty close because it's a small team. They are all amazing in their own sense and pretty much just want to do their best. And that is what is starting to happen. People are starting to win on the world stage and podium.
“When we do, it's amazing because we are just from little old New Zealand. And the more people who are succeeding, the more noticed we get, the more people want to get into [snow sports] in New Zealand. That is amazing to see.”
If there was a element of fortune in legs one and two of the Kiwi's triple crown, she left nothing to chance in leg three - the US Open in Vail, Colorado - nailing her tricks to post a score that would not be overhauled in her opening run.
“It was pretty exciting," she says of her incredible run of results. "I was stoked with the season. It was such a dream come true."
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