OSLO, Norway -- Nearly one month after being named to the 2016 U.S. Youth Olympic Freestyle Skiing Team, Birk Irving fractured his right fibula during a Mammoth Mountain training run in California. The 16-year-old was afraid the injury would keep him from representing Team USA at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Norway. Fast forward two weeks to the opening day of the freestyle skiing competition at Oslo Vinterpark, where Irving not only competed, but walked away with the men’s halfpipe gold medal.
“It was definitely more of a mental thing,” Irving said of his injury. “We were going through practice and I was in a lot of pain, so it was hard for me to get over that.”
The injury kept him from training earlier in the week and when he finally attempted his first practice run on Sunday afternoon, he noticed a lack of strength and confidence in his right leg.
“’What am I doing here? This is a bad idea,’” Irving thought to himself after dropping in for his first run of the competition. “And then after I landed my first hit, it was on. I told myself, ‘I can do this, I can put down this run and not feel anything.’”
Competing with grit and poise well beyond his years, Irving only needed two runs to secure the gold with a score of 93.00. New Zealand’s Finn Bilous posted a strong 92.20 on his third run to challenge the U.S. frontrunner for the top spot, but ultimately the day belonged to Irving. Norway’s Trym Sunde Andreassen did not disappoint the home crowd, rounding out the podium in third place with a score of 80.20.
The Winter Park, Colorado, native became only the second U.S. men’s freestyle skier to claim a Youth Olympic medal – and the first to win gold – following in the footsteps of 2014 Olympian Aaron Blunck, who took bronze in the men’s halfpipe at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2012.
The winning performance capped a stellar day for Team USA, which saw eight skiers and snowboarders drop into the Oslo Vintepark halfpipe and five come out with medals.
Also taking her place on the Youth Olympic podium was Paula Cooper, 17, who skied to the women’s halfpipe silver medal on what she described as the “best pipe she has ever skied.” The Colorado native executed a left-side 5 to finish second run with a score of 79.00 behind Great Britain’s Madison Rowlands (88.60) and ahead of Austria’s Lara Wolf (74.20).
“The silver medal means a lot to me, but mostly, I’m really happy with my skiing – I’ve never skied this well,” she said. “This is probably one of the most important events that I’ve ever competed in.”
Both medalists are no strangers to the international stage, having competed at the 2015 FIS World Junior Championships in Valmalenco, Italy, where Irving placed third and Copper took eighth in halfpipe. But today’s competition was particularly special as both of their families were on hand to watch their medal runs.
The U.S. also had two narrow podium misses with Alex Hall (Park City, Utah) and Nikita Rubocki (Boise, Idaho) placing fourth in men’s and women’s halfpipe skiing.
For Cooper, sharing in the success with her teammates – and other winter sport athletes – is really what the Youth Olympic Games experience is all about.
“I think it’s really amazing how [the organizing committee] put so much effort into making this event so special for all the athletes,” she said. “I wanted to come into these Games with an open mind and focus on my skiing, but still embrace the whole experience of meeting new people and participating in all the activities they have to offer.”
As for Irving – who is planning to return to the Vinterpark halfpipe when Oslo hosts the X Games on Feb. 24-28 – the lesson is a bit more personal.
“This experience has taught me that if I think if I can’t do something then I just have to go out and do it,” he said. “I landed my first double in a competition with a broken leg so I guess that says something about my ability to land on my feet when I don’t feel confident about doing something.”