22 Feb 2018

How two Kiwi teens created sporting history in Pyeongchang

9:06 pm on 22 February 2018

By Ben Stanley *

Analysis - Bound by the gravity of a big achievement and given enough time, history, in sport, can easily morph into something it never wanted to be.

Winter Olympic bronze medallists Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous.

Winter Olympic bronze medallists Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous. Photo: AFP

Think the All Blacks and 1987 World Cup, or the English football team and 1966. Think the Chicago Cubs and the World Series.

For 26 years now, the silver medal of slalom skier Annelise Coberger - the first person from the Southern Hemisphere, let alone New Zealand, to stand on a Winter Olympics podium - has done the same thing for Kiwi snow sports.

Punctuated by empty-handed efforts at every Winter Olympics since, that success in Albertville had turned into a resigned myth: maybe that's all we'll ever get?

Until this afternoon, it was. After two incredible hours on the slopes of Pyeongchang, two 16-year-old Kiwis claimed two Winter Olympic bronze medals and turned 26 years on its head.

It matters not that the majority of Kiwis won't be able to explain a double wildcat, which Zoi Sadowski-Synnott landed in first Women's Snowboard Big Air final run today, or why judges scored Nico Porteous' second run in the Men's Freeski Half Pipe final a 94.80.

The best thing about Olympic medals, especially for a country like New Zealand, isn't in the answering of specific questions: it's about glorious surprise of it all and how the reactions of the athletes reveal something even bigger.

Zoi Sadowski Synnott in her final jump during the final of the women's snowboard big air event at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

Zoi Sadowski Synnott in her final jump during the final of the women's snowboard big air event at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Photo: AFP

In that, Sadowski-Synnott and Porteous shone like pole vaulter Eliza McCartney had two years before when snared a bronze herself, in Rio.

Like McCartney, both will be fairly ordained as new Kiwi sporting heroes and, along with their bronze medals, both will take an extra slice of history back home with them.

Sadowski-Synnott was the one that broke the drought, while Porteous - just a day under 16 years and three months old - is now New Zealand's youngest-ever Olympic medalist.

Regardless of if you're an Olympic athlete or any other 16-year-old Kiwi, the benefit of that youth is your ever-present option to suspend gravity.

In fact, free from real responsibility of adulthood and seeing what came before you as somewhat abstract, think Coberger and 1992, you can create your own.

"I tried to do my own tricks that no one else is doing and push the sport as much as I can," Porteous told media, after the final.

New Zealand's Nico Porteous competes in a run of the men's ski halfpipe final during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

New Zealand's Nico Porteous competes in a run of the men's ski halfpipe final during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Photo: AFP

That's not to say that Sadowski-Synnott and Porteous didn't put the hard yards in - they both did. Success, of course, is that fine balance of natural guts and natural talent.

The last year has seen Sadowski-Synnott, who was born in Australia, juggle international competition - which netted a World Cup gold and World Championships silver in slope style - and the ordinary realities of a student at Mount Aspiring College.

"Snowboarding is half my life and the other half is school work," she told the ODT last September.

Porteous - who, two years ago, became the youngest person in the world to land a Triple Cork 1440 on skis - has weaved a similar trail.

The roots of today's twin Olympic successes lie in Sochi, when both Sadowski-Synnott and Porteous were, can you believe it, just 12 and a world away.

Led by three of the four Wells brothers, a youthful Kiwi team came home empty-handed but beamed genuine spirit. It was criticized mightily back home in New Zealand (a culture which still prizes the Colin Meads-like stoic-ness of yesteryear) but they'd freed themselves up; taken the pressure off.

Nico Porteous.

Nico Porteous. Photo: Twitter/ NZ Olympic Team

The on-screen images of both bronze medal winning moments today showed this, too. They'd given it a real nudge and were there with their close friends and family. The Kiwi winter sports community is, after all, a small, tightly knit one. They don't have the big name sponsors and mountains of taxpayer cash to fall back on, after all.

"For me to come out and do that," Porteous said, "the two best runs of my life, back to back, is insane."

"I was sitting down the bottom after my third run and … they were like you have to wait because you're in third and I was like 'okay,' Sadowski-Synnott said.

"I was just like 'I'll just chill here and I'll probably have to leave soon because there were some riders who were some pretty heavy hitters'.

"Then the last girl went who wasn't yet on the podium and she didn't quite land. Then I realized I was in third, and it was a pretty crazy feeling.

"It's been a long journey."

It sure has. You get the feeling the next one, for winter sports in New Zealand, might not take as long if these two incredible Kiwi teens have anything to do with it.

* Ben Stanley is an award-winning journalist from Taupō, who covered the Sochi Winter Olympics for Fairfax

Zoi Sadowski Synnott at the awards ceremony.

Zoi Sadowski Synnott at the awards ceremony. Photo: PhotoSport

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