Colby Stevenson reacts after winning the silver medal during the Men's Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air Final on Day 5 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Big Air Shougang on February 07, 2022 in Beijing, China.
BEIJING — On a perfect, sunny Wednesday, in what many competitors describe as a perfect venue, Colby Stevenson shook off a failed first run to land a giant new trick near perfectly and win silver in big air freestyle skiing.
“A lot of people fell out there, but every dog has its day,” the 24-year-old from Park City, Utah, said. “I just happened to land my tricks clean. I couldn’t be more grateful and surprised.”
Birk Ruud of Norway won gold, earning 187.75 points for his best two out of three runs. Stevenson’s two runs totaled 183.00 points. Sweden’s Henrik Harlaut took bronze with 181.00 points.
The high-flying action happened at Big Air Shougang, the world’s first permanent venue for big air. With steel mill origins and a backdrop of four industrial cooling towers, it’s a setting more fitting for a sci-fi movie than a skiing competition.
“Every time I take the bus in, it feels like we’re in a video game,” said eighth-place finisher Alex Hall, also of Park City. “It’s amazing.”
“China did such a good job of building us a perfect jump,” Southport, Connecticut’s Mac Forehand, the 11th place finisher, said. “The structure is massive, the end run is really wide, so we have a lot of room. A regular scaffold jump is super narrow … This jump is a little bit more like a regular jump we see on snow.”
Team USA’s Nick Goepper, a 27-year-old from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, placed 22nd in the qualifying and did not compete in the final.
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Big air is all about high risk, high reward, and Stevenson decided early on to go big or go home.
“(I’ve) never podiumed in an event in big air, so I’ve been learning new tricks,” he said. “I really just came out and focused on the tricks I wanted to land, and let the results take care of themselves.”
Stevenson had worked on a nose butter triple cork 1620 at the X Games in Aspen, Colorado, last month. He did not lay it down in practices in Beijing, instead focusing on visualizations.
Each skier took three runs in Wednesday’s final. Stevenson kicked off with a try at the trick but didn’t stick the landing. His second attempt gained 91.75 from the six judges, the third-highest score of the day behind Ruud’s two runs.
“I threw it down for my first trick, didn’t quite land it clean, but got it clean (on the second try). I was really excited with that,” Stevenson said.
.@colbyskier really said 🌀🌀🌀#WinterOlympics pic.twitter.com/KIQPJw0QH1— Team USA (@TeamUSA) February 9, 2022
“You want to land the first jump, it’s really important, because then you get two chances to land another trick,” he added. “When I didn’t land that first one, I was not discouraged but just more excited, because it was a new trick for me. I was happy I had (a chance) the second time around.”
Stevenson ended with a switch left double 1800 Cuban, a trick he has landed in previous events. It earned 91.25 points.
“For my third jump, I (decided to) do something I was more comfortable with and style it out, not have the pressure as much to land that third jump,” he said.
Colby Stevenson is adding pressure!💪#WinterOlympics— Team USA (@TeamUSA) February 9, 2022
Stevenson’s teammates were almost as excited as the silver medalist.
“That first trick he did, he never did before, so he threw it all out in the cough and that last jump too was so epic,” Hall, 23, said. “He deservedly got second. We all knew he had it.”
“This is Colby’s first big air podium, he usually doesn’t pod at big air too much, he’s a slopestyle guy,” Forehand, 20, said. “He had two insane tricks and I’m really stoked for him.”
Few Team USA athletes have fought through more adversity to compete in Beijing than Stevenson. In May 2016, he completed a pro event in Mount Hood, Oregon. A friend, John Michael Fabrizi, who had broken his leg, asked Stevenson for a ride home.
While driving Fabrizi’s truck in Idaho, Stevenson fell asleep for a second or two — all it took for the truck to roll off the highway. Fabrizi wasn’t injured, but Stevenson suffered a shattered skull and was airlifted to a trauma center in Salt Lake City, Utah. After complicated surgery, three days in a medically induced coma and five months of rehab, he was back to full-scale training; just eight months after the accident, he won his first slopestyle world cup.
There was more hardship in 2018, when a torn rotator cuff took him out of the running for PyeongChang.
“Your character is defined in those tougher times in your life,” Stevenson said. “Getting dealt bad cards, you have to look at that in a positive light and still push forward for your dreams, even though they seem hard to reach. It’s been a hard road for me, but it seems like I’ve just been surrounded by the right people. I just enjoy every moment, traveling the world, continuing to do what I love.”
While big air is loaded with risk, the Team USA athletes have all also qualified to compete in slopestyle, giving them a potential second medal chance in Beijing. Men’s qualification is on Feb. 14, with the finals on Feb. 15.
But for a day or two, Stevenson will bask in what he calls his “miracle medal.”
“I’m totally on a cloud … It’s a miracle I’m on the podium today,” Stevenson said. “It’s a miracle I was able to land that trick. I’m super grateful for everything. It feels like it’s been my whole life, getting to this moment.”