Can The U.S. Men Sweep The Olympic Slopestyle Skiing Podium Again?

By Peggy Shinn | Jan. 11, 2018, 5:26 p.m. (ET)
(L-R) Gus Kenworthy, Joss Christensen and Nick Goepper pose for a portrait at the U.S. Olympic Committee/NBC Olympics photo shoot on April 25, 2017 in West Hollywood, Calif.

 

On a spring-like day in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, three American men swept the inaugural Olympic men’s slopestyle skiing podium. Throwing a trick he had only just learned — a switch triple cork — on the last of three jumps, Joss Christensen won, with Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper rounding out the medal sweep.

It was only the third time in the history of the Olympic Winter Games that the U.S. had swept an event. American men went 1-2-3 in figure skating at the 1956 Winter Games and in halfpipe snowboarding in 2002.

Can the U.S. men’s slopestyle team bring this magic to Korea in 2018? Maybe. But it will be a tough act to follow.

 

Slopestyle Has Progressed Since 2014

Slopestyle courses have three big jumps, and Christensen’s gold-medal run in Sochi featured two double corks (three to three-and-a-half rotations while doing two flips) and a triple cork (three-and-a-half rotations and three flips) but to his non-dominant side.

Since 2014, the sport has progressed. Young skiers from Norway, Canada, Switzerland and other countries are doing runs similar in caliber to what Christensen did in Sochi. Øystein Braaten, a 22-year-old from Norway, won the 2017 X Games title, and a cadre of teenagers are a few points away from winning medals at the top slopestyle contests.

In comparison, the American Olympians are freeskiing’s elder statesmen.

“Four years ago, I felt like I was that up-and-coming youngster who was chomping at the heels of all the guys who were three or four years older than I was,” said Goepper, who is 23, and currently leads the Olympic qualification ranking (after one of five events). “Now there are these 18- and 19-year olds who are winning contests and putting together high-caliber runs. It’s a little intimidating, to be honest.”

Slopestyle contests are now dominated by guys who can throw triple corks every run — and not just one.

“It’s like kryptonite,” said Goepper, who is working on the trick. “If you have a triple cork, you’re in that top five as long as the rest of your run is pretty good.”

Christensen speculates that the winning run at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games will feature two triple corks, with one of those jumps being done to a skier’s non-dominant side.

“If I did the same run in Korea, I would end up top-10 for sure,” Christensen said, “but I doubt it would get me on the podium.”

Since Sochi, Christensen, Kenworthy and Goepper have won medals at X Games, world cups and/or world championships. But the name to watch in PyeongChang could be McRae Williams, who’s the reigning world champion as well as world cup champion. And he won the silver medal at the 2017 X Games in Aspen. After the first Olympic qualifier, where he fell in the finals, Williams is ranked seventh. But he has four more tries.

 

Will Experience Trump Youth?

While youth may be driving slopestyle to a new level, the U.S. Olympians think experience will pay off.

“New tricks have been introduced and people have pushed the envelope,” said Kenworthy, who’s 26, and currently ranked third in Olympic qualification. “But ultimately, you can’t do certain tricks on certain courses. You have to build a run around the course.”

“Some of the guys have tricks that I don’t have,” he added. “But sometimes experience prevails.”

Goepper agrees. To win a medal in Korea, he thinks slopestyle skiers will have to back off on “an aggressive, all out, everything goes approach” and instead use “a creative, smarter approach” to build their runs.

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The Pressure Of Success

Going to Sochi, both Christensen and Kenworthy considered themselves underdogs. Christensen struggled until the final Olympic qualifier in January 2014, then was the last guy named to the team. Neither skier had signed any sponsors for the Games.

“I had done well at some events,” said Kenworthy, “but no one was banking on me winning or getting a medal.”

Christensen’s goal was simply to make the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team. Anything more was a bonus. It helped him stay relaxed and perform beyond his dreams in Sochi.

“This time around, it’s a 180-degree difference,” he said.

Adding to the pressure, Christensen is trying to come back from injury and skipped the first Olympic qualifier. He tore his ACL in May while training in Mammoth, California, and had two surgeries (plus another procedure in August to help breakup scar tissue). Most skiers rehab for nine months before returning to competition after ACL surgery. Nine months from last May is January 2018.

Rather than bow to the pressure, Christensen has changed his goal. He is not thinking about defending his gold medal in PyeongChang. Instead, he wants to win another gold.

“I feel like if I’m defending, then I’m going to lose something,” he explained. “But if I try to get another gold medal, it’s a goal to reach. I’m not trying to protect myself.”

Christensen isn’t the only one facing increased pressure. Having won four X Games medals since the 2014 Games, Kenworthy now has several sponsors. He also has the LGBT community watching him. The freeskier came out as gay in 2015.

“There’s all these people I want to do right by, including myself,” Kenworthy said. “It puts a little pressure on. But it’s a good pressure.”

He is also one of few freeskiers trying to qualify for the 2018 PyeongChang Games in both slopestyle and halfpipe.

“My goal is to make both teams,” said Kenworthy, who’s currently ranked fifth in halfpipe Olympic qualification after two of five events. “And if anything, my focus is actually more on halfpipe because slopestyle I already had an amazing showing and was very proud of myself for that.”

The underdog this time around might be Williams. The 27-year-old grew up with Christensen in Park City, Utah, and missed qualifying for the Sochi Games.

“I’m stoked to give it my all,” Williams said, “and to try to steal that dark horse role from Joss and bring another gold medal to Park City.”


Deep Talent Pool

Over the past two seasons, Christensen has struggled with injuries — a broken hand, chipped knee cartilage, and a separated collarbone in 2016; then he tore his ACL in May — making him a longshot to make his second Olympic team.

But the U.S. men’s freeskiing roster is still overflowing with talent, including 2016 Youth Olympic silver medalist Alex Hall, 21, who ranks second behind Goepper in Olympic slopestyle qualification; 2014 Olympian Bobby Brown, fourth behind Kenworthy in qualification rankings; and 20-year-old Colby Stevenson who won a world cup last winter.

At least one U.S. man has finished on the podium at every X Games, world championship, U.S. Grand Prix and most of the world cups since Sochi.

“It will be hard to make our spots on the team again this year,” said Kenworthy. “But I feel confident, and I know that whoever the four guys are for the U.S., they are going to be a force to be reckoned with."

“It’s good that all these other countries are coming up quick on us,” added Christensen. “It makes us work that much harder, and I think that Team USA has a really good chance to do it again and even pull a podium sweep for sure.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.