Steps to the Top | Brandon Semenuk
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” — Theodore Roosevelt
Sunday, March 29, Rotorua, New Zealand. It’s the final day of Crankworx Rotorua. Slopestyle day. This is the day that draws the fans. This is the event that continually redefines ‘big’. Slopestyle is the show that the entire Crankworx entourage and thousands of spectators have been anxiously awaiting all week.
But after a week of near perfect conditions, the skies above Rotorua’s Skyline Gravity Park have decided to open up. The course was covered in tarps on Saturday night to protect the manicured dirt, but as rain fell into the morning, event organizers were forced to call for a few hours of delay.
Time itself is not that big a deal. After all, most of these guys have traveled to New Zealand’s North Island from North America, Europe or Great Britain. Most spend hours in the gym, hours digging in the dirt to sculpt their own jumps, and even more hours practicing. They’ve already spent hours practicing this course all week.
The uncertainness of the event postponement is difficult, though. Most of the riders have been talking about how much they like this course—perhaps not surprising, since it was designed and built by one of their own. They want to get to work.
Being a slopestyle rider is a strange profession. Imagine going to work in an office that awarded small missteps with any manner of injury. Get the smallest part of a run wrong, and you just might end up lights-out on the ground. And even if you get everything right, even if you nail every trick in your run perfectly, the only prizes you’re guaranteed are applause from the fans and the respect of your peers.
But admiration alone isn’t enough for some riders. At the pinnacle of the sport right now, two athletes seem to be on another level. They placed first and second in Red Bull Joyride last year at Crankworx Whistler, and as event favorites, Brett Rheeder and Brandon Semenuk will be the last riders to drop in.
It’s nearing 2:00 p.m. and the forecast for clearing skies seems to be reasonably accurate. For much of the morning, the rain has been coming down. Sometimes, it has been an easy mist and sometimes, it has come down in sheets, blown sideways by big gusts of wind. Now, though, the sun is peeking through, and hoodies and rain jackets that were not quite warm enough earlier are starting to be shed for t-shirts. Steam rises from the jumps like the start of some ominous pregame pyrotechnics show.
Semenuk is calm, collected and perhaps a bit guarded on a last quick walk of the course. Tarps blew off the very top last night, making the ground a bit softer here than elsewhere, and making the first gap harder to clear than at any other time this week. No matter.
This course is not perfect—no one ever will be—but there is nowhere on it, no jump or feature that is terrifying to the riders. While that might be comforting for some, the few riders in this sport’s uppermost echelon know that the only way to win here is to push the envelope of what’s possible further than everyone else. A normal run simply won’t cut it. For them, that’s the incredibly terrifying part.
Robbed of the morning’s scheduled practice, riders are given a few runs to warm up and get used to the slower conditions. The start time, which had been pushed back to 2:00, is now looking more like 3:00. The crowd is deep, and the atmosphere, as they like to say here, is ‘amped.’ After nearly an hour-long, non-stop flow of riders, the course is quiet, signaling that it’s about to start.
One at a time, riders begin making their way down. Many of them nail their runs, and celebrate success with the fans surrounding the final jump. Others come up short, and immediately begin thinking about how to correct their second attempt.
Next up is Brett Rheeder. His run goes flip whip, cork 720, back flip opposite tail whip, opposite tail whip, double truck driver, opposite truck driver, back flip, tail whip and finishes with a back flip bar spin to tuck no-hander. In about 45 seconds.
The judges award Rheeder a score of 93.33, which puts him in the lead.
Semenuk follows. Double truck driver, tuck no-hander to tail whip, 360 bar spin to tail whip, nollie tail whip, 450 downside tail whip, opposite truck driver, back flip one-foot can-can, back flip and then a cork 720 bar spin to finish it off—except he doesn’t stick the final landing, and hits the ground. He’s moving, but also doesn’t get up right away.
The low score moves Semenuk up in the start order for run number two.
He opens run number two with a first trick that seems a bit light for a three-time winner of Crankworx Whistler’s slopestyle and two-time Crankworx Les 2 Alpes slopestyle champ. He doesn’t trick the second jump or the third, and pulls up short of the fourth. For Semenuk, the day is done.
When the two riders that follow him stop short with what seem to be similar problems, fans begin to speculate that the ground has turned to speed-stealing mush. But that’s not what’s going on with Brandon Semenuk.
Back at the base of the run, under the shade of his sponsor’s tents, he stands alone, facing away from the course. Shades don’t completely hide the thousand-yard stare.
He explains that it wasn’t anything to do with the course, but rather his crash that effectively ended his day. He’d hit his head and was having a hard time seeing out of his left eye. He moves his left hand around, indicating that he can really only see it when it’s almost directly in front of his face. In a sport like this that relies so heavily on visual clues, partial vision is a dangerous thing.
The masses watch, as Rheeder’s closest challengers—Nicolai Rogatkin, Thomas Genon, Martin Soderstrom and Logan Peat—make attempts at overtaking him for the lead. Despite valiant efforts, none of them gets it done. And when it’s clear that Rheeder’s first run score will win, he rolls in for a celebratory run, with his longtime friend Logan Peat in tow.
At the base of the final landing, photographers line up to capture the podium ceremony. One by one, Thomas Genon, Nicolai Rogatkin and Brett Rheeder make their way onto the steps, hoist giant checks and spray champagne on each other. The interviews continue on for the better part of an hour, and the celebration will undoubtedly continue throughout the night.
Brandon Semenuk is noticeably absent from shots of congratulatory hugs and handshakes—he’s across the venue in the medical tent, hoping his eyesight would clear up a little bit quicker and questioning his decision to include the cork 7 bar spin at the end of his run.
The life of a slopestyle rider is strange: You travel halfway around the world in search of just a few seconds of glory. Sometimes it goes your way. Perhaps more often, though, it doesn’t. And so it goes.