Sage Kotsenburg knew how to make a statement.
Competing in the finals of the first ever men’s slopestyle snowboarding competition at the Olympic Winter Games in 2014, he threw down a “Holy Crail,” a grab he invented a couple of months prior and that he’d never performed in competition.
The move — four-and-a-half revolutions with a “Japan” air mute grab, which is behind the back — helped Kotsenburg win a surprise Olympic gold medal and etched his name forever into the history books.
“I just kind of do random stuff all the time,” Kotsenburg told TeamUSA.org at the time. “I never really make a plan up. I had no idea I was going to even do a 1620 in my run until three minutes before I dropped. That’s kind of what I’m all about.”
Halfpipe snowboarding joined the Olympic program in 1998, and in 2014 the program expanded to include halfpipe skiing as well as slopestyle for both skiing and snowboarding.
In both disciplines athletes are judged for their execution on tricks, so just like in figure skating or gymnastics there’s a never-ending quest to push the limits. With each discipline constantly evolving, and tricks — and courses — getting bigger and bigger, the cutting-edge performances from just four years ago can quickly feel dated.
“Honestly, I think the run that I did last time around would barely get me into finals,” said Jamie Anderson, who won the women’s slopestyle snowboarding gold medal in Sochi.
“If I did the run that I did in Salt Lake, I wouldn't even make the final today,” said Kelly Clark, the 2002 women’s halfpipe snowboarding gold medalist.
That evolution continues, with this year’s slopestylers aiming to perfect their triple corks and halfpipe athletes striving for that extra half rotation. The top U.S. freeskiers and snowboarders will put that on display as they continue their 2018 Olympic qualification process this week with the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colorado.
But in a welcome change for many, progression in these sports now goes beyond just adding more flips or rotations. Following the trend set by Kotsenburg in 2014, style and creativity are becoming huge factors when setting athletes apart.
“It’s about style, the way you put new spin or a new tweak of a grab or a new rotation on something,” said Aaron Blunck, a 2012 Youth Olympian and 2014 Olympian in halfpipe skiing. “That’s what the judges are looking for. That’s what people really want.”
This transition is happening in part, the athletes say, because the sports are maxing out.
“I think that we’ve almost reached the ceiling as far as what the human body can do on a 60-foot jump made out of snow,” said Nick Goepper, the 2014 bronze medalist in men’s slopestyle skiing. “You can only spin around and flip around so many times.”
To be sure, athletes are still pushing the limits, often using specialized equipment such as air bags in their quest to go one step further than the rest. But for many who compete in these more free-spirited sports, the added emphasis on style and creativity is welcome.
“Snowboarding is becoming aerials,” lamented Anderson, who said she mostly eschews air bags. “That’s not really what it is. It’s about style and flow and how you make it look.”
So what might this mean on the slopes of PyeongChang?
“I think now it’s sort of evolving into a more creative, like artistic expression,” Goepper said. “Like how can you do a trick where you spin around three times, but how can you do it most stylish and execute it the best?”
For David Wise, the men’s halfpipe skiing champion in 2014, style and creativity mean always finding a new way to stand out.
“I want to do something that nobody else is doing,” he said. “I want to do each and every trick that I do in the halfpipe, even if it’s just a tweak or a grab or how I execute it, I want to make it look different than everybody else. For me it’s more important to be a pioneer than it is to do a flawlessly executed run.”
Added Maddie Bowman, the Sochi women’s halfpipe skiing champ: “Everyone has a unique style, and I think that is the most important thing.”
Athletes are leading the way, but organizers are helping to foster this creativity, too, Kenworthy said, particularly on the slopestyle side.
“We’ve seen a lot of evolution in course design,” he said. “So courses aren’t so straightforward anymore, where it’s a down rail into a cannon box into three jumps. It’s a lot more creative; there’s a ton of rails, and the rails are very unique in how they’re set up, and you can choose multiple different ways to get down the run and have a much different line than other people.”
Because of this, Kenworthy said, “It’s almost like technicality has been scaled back a little bit in favor of creativity and execution, which is cool to see.”
Four years after Kotsenburg made history with his free-spirited ride in Sochi, he’s elected not to try to defend his title in PyeongChang. Instead, the 24-year-old is focusing on filming snowboarding movies.
As his sport continues to evolve and change, however, his impact and example from Sochi live on.
“It says a lot to see Sage win doing a really creative run and doing what he wanted and not necessarily doing what was expected,” Anderson said. “I hope snowboarding starts to go that way. And we’re seeing more creative features being built, so it’s kind of aiming to do that.”