KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The unlikely coastal host of the Winter Olympics is elevating dark-horse winners at its Rosa Khutor Extreme Park venue.
With few exceptions, the narrative that's unfolded in the halfpipe and slopestyle course has been the surprising collapse of stars and even more stirring upsets by athletes in waiting.
Shaun White didn't climb a podium in snowboard halfpipe, ending a four-Olympic streak of medal-draped Americans in the pipe. Dominant triple-corking Canadians in snowboard slopestyle were eclipsed by wild-haired Park City, Utah, rider Sage Kotsenburg, who counted his Olympic gold as his second win since he was 11.
Cowgirl snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington — who landed on the U.S. Olympic team with a win at the last possible contest — knocked off three Olympic gold medalists in the halfpipe. Canadian slopestyle skier Dara Howell threw down the run of her life to sneak past a bobbling Kaya Turski, the country's ever-gilded slopestyle champion.
The storyline continued Thursday on the ski slopestyle course, when Joss Christensen, another Park City ripper, climbed the top step of the first-ever Olympic ski slopestyle podium, leading a U.S. sweep.
The 22-year-old, like Farrington, earned his spot on the Olympic team in the fifth and final qualifying contest on a coaches' decision.
“I just wanted to show everyone that they made a good choice and hope to prove myself,” said the understated Christensen.
That effort to dismiss doubters led Christensen to learn a new trick while practicing on the Russian course many snowboarders lamented as intimidating and dangerous. He joined silver medalist Gus Kenworthy of Denver and bronzed Nick Goepper in calling the course “perfect.”
Christensen led the festivities with a switch triple-cork 1440 — three backflips wedged into four gyroscopic spins, both launched and landed while skiing backwards — that earned the unlikely new hero of freeskiing the three highest points of the day; a day championed by winners and losers alike as the greatest in the history of competitive freeskiing.
“Today was the best day for freeskiing for contests ever,” said Indiana's Goepper, a persistent slopestyle champion and the gold-medal favorite. “I couldn't have dreamed a better way to debut the sport to the world.”
Goepper's giddy celebration of bronze as if it was gold reveals the secret to U.S. domination in the new-school freeskiing and snowboarding sports: The U.S. riders are a tight-knit crew. An American on the podium is a victory not just for country, but for snowboarding and freeskiing. Of the 18 medals awarded so far in the six halfpipe and slopestyle contests, eight have been draped around the necks of U.S. riders.
At the base of the slopestyle course Thursday, every member of the U.S. Freeskiing Olympic team screamed themselves hoarse celebrating their friends. The eruption when Christensen secured his gold was tear-inducing as the quilt-jacketed teammates bounced in locked embraces and screamed into the cloudless sky. A small but vocal army of American fans chanted U-S-A, waved flags and celebrated the athletes like they were rock stars. Breckenridge slopestyle skier Keri Herman was shoving her GoPro in the faces of every American athlete, asking each to share their thoughts on the unexpectedly golden Christensen.
“He is literally the most amazing person I have ever met,” she said.
Christensen, whose dad passed suddenly last August, powered through a grueling qualifying season with humility and strength, earning the admiration of all around him.
The camaraderie of the athletes are a pillar of the team's strength.
“These guys love each other. They are happy to see each other land runs, each and every time. We ride together. We travel together and we are genuinely happy with each other,” said Mike Jankowski, the laid back rider who leads both U.S. Freeskiing and U.S. Snowboarding as the head coach.
That love includes making each other better.
“They keep pushing each other so if one guy is having a rough day, they kind of just kind of stoke each other out,” said an ecstatic Skogen Sprang, the former pro skier who coaches the slopestyle team, calling his crew “a little family of freeskiers.”
Yes, the U.S. likely has the best halfpipes and slopestyle courses — as well as contests — in the world. Its coaches are former competitors. Its well-oiled program fired to life in 1998 — years ahead of most countries — thanks to snowboard halfpipe dominance.
But despite all the tangible support, the secret to U.S. Freeskiing and U.S. Snowboarding owning these Olympics is that, in reality, this is a bunch of pals out having fun.
“We definitely taking our sport very seriously, but it's a very fun sport,” Kenworthy said. “Technically you can say we've been training toward this since we were really young kids, but all we were actually doing was going out and skiing with our friends.”
The fun that first sparked their interest in skiing and junior contests remains vibrant today, even as athletes venture into the daunting triple-cork, the most challenging, risky trick in freeskiing and snowboarding. It takes gumption to throw a double cork. To look over your shoulder for yet another rotation after flipping twice takes a rarified bravado and confidence.
But with your bros pushing you, it's much easier.