As far as years go, 2014 will be hard to top for Joss Christensen. In Sochi, Russia, the unheralded freeskier from Park City, Utah, went from also-ran to Olympic champion, leading a U.S. freesking podium sweep in men’s slopestyle. Gus Kenworthy took second with Nick Goepper third.
In the following weeks, the three men graced the covers of magazines and cereal boxes. And Christensen was invited to ski in Sarajevo, the war-torn capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina that hosted the 1984 Olympic Winter Games.
“I’m a lot more busy now, my weekends are pretty filled, and I’ve been traveling quite a bit,” Christensen said, when asked how his life has changed since winning Olympic gold.
With the Dew Tour kicking off this week, the 22-year-old freeskier is focused again on what he does best: jibbing in the terrain park and doing triple corks off the jumps.
How did he go from underdog to world traveler in less than two months? And can 2015 possibly be as good as 2014?
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Christensen’s parents, Debbie and J.D., had their son on skis by age 2. Young Joss gravitated toward the park’s rails and jumps. But he showed a serious side too.
“He would do jump after jump after jump on the water ramp (at the Utah Olympic Park) until he perfected everything,” Park City Freestyle coach Mick Berry told the Park Record after Christensen won gold in Sochi. “He truly loved the sport — he absolutely loved skiing. That's what’s allowed him to take it as far as he has — his love of the sport and his work ethic.”
His first breakthrough came two years ago. Known for his clean runs, Christensen made the podium in eight events during the 2012-13 season, including the U.S. Grand Prix in Mammoth, California, the Aspen/Snowmass Freeskiing Open, and the AFP World Championships.
But then a knee injury sidelined him for part of the next season. Not until March 2013 was he on the podium again — at the Dumont Cup in Maine.
Going into the 2014 Olympic season, he was not a favorite to make the U.S. team. The U.S. freeskiing field is just too deep. Then in August 2013, Christensen’s father passed away from congenital heart failure. Christensen had just reached New Zealand for summer training; he immediately flew home.
Personal tragedy has a way of focusing the mind, and Christensen did just that. His dad had been a big part of his ski career, and he would not have wanted his son to quit.
“I tried to weed out all the distractions in my life and tried to just think more about skiing,” Christensen said.
His first two Olympic qualifiers in December 2013 did not go especially well. He finished eighth and 12th.
But as the calendar turned to 2014, Christensen’s fortunes changed. At the final two qualifiers in his hometown of Park City, he finished fourth, then stomped a huge run to win the final slopestyle qualifier. He was named as the coaches’ discretionary pick, joining Kenworthy, Goepper and Bobby Brown on the U.S. Olympic Men’s Slopestyle Skiing Team — the underdog on a team of proven winners.
Once in Sochi, Christensen’s fortune changed yet again. He watched his good friend Sage Kotsenburg win gold in snowboard slopestyle — the first gold medal won by a Team USA athlete at the 2014 Winter Games.
“We were both not the favorites coming in, so it was pretty cool to see him just crush it and kind of break through,” Christensen said. “At that point, it was probably the best day of my life watching him win.”
Although he didn’t dare touch Kotsenburg’s gold medal for fear of jinxing himself, his friend’s win “started a flame inside” him.
Five days later, Christensen threw a switch triple cork 1440 that he had just learned in Sochi and won a gold medal of his own. He dedicated the win to his dad.
From a hotel in New York where he was about to start his post-gold-medal media tour, Kotsenburg was watching Christensen compete when the live feed on his smart phone froze. Instead, he followed the action on Twitter. When he realized that Christensen had joined him as a gold medalist, he threw his phone at the couch and screamed.
“It was the start of the best day ever,” Kotsenburg said, then corrected himself — “post-gold-medal best day ever.”
Christensen’s other friends were happy for him too, even if he topped them on the podium.
“He flew under the radar for a long time on the ski thing,” said Kenworthy, who describes Christensen as the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. “He had the skill to do really well but just hadn’t had the results that he had wanted. This year, he came out swinging. I feel like it’s been a long time coming.”
|(L-R) Gus Kenworthy, Joss Christensen and Nick Goepper pose with their medals in the Olympic Park during the 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 14, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.|
Right after Sochi, Teton Gravity Research invited Christensen on a filming trip to Sarajevo. Over nine days in March, Christensen and two friends jibbed and jumped through Sarajevo’s war-torn and grim Olympic ruins.
Titled “Jibbing the Dark Side of Olympic History in Sarajevo,” the segment is part of TGR’s film, “Almost Ablaze,” now available on iTunes.
“I really wanted to go somewhere I wouldn’t normally go, that skiing wouldn’t really take you,” Christensen said.
“It was really crazy to walk around,” he added. “We walked around one of the athlete hotels and went through and tried to imagine what it was like when there were athletes there.”
The trip was another highlight of his winter, even if he was bitten by a stray dog and ended his season by getting 40 shots (rabies, tetanus and antibiotic injections).
With the 2014-15 slopestyle season set to debut at the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colorado, this week, Christensen is again focused on skiing.
His goals are the Dew Tour and X Games and to just ski as much as he can. He would like to return to Sarajevo at some point. The TGR crew had hoped to film Christensen and his friends jibbing a rainbow-shaped bridge near where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914 — the shot that triggered World War I. But lack of snow and heavy traffic shut them down.
Other than that trip and the few contests, Christensen wants to stay home as much as he can. He purchased a snowmobile, giving him easier access to backcountry powder near property that he owns near Park City. The resort gave him two rails to install on the property, reported Kotsenburg, who simply said, “It’s going to be a great place to be.”
Perhaps the best place?
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.