KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Take sun and slush, mix in some triple corked spins, and the result was a Team USA sweep led by Joss Christensen in men’s slopestyle skiing at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Christensen, the last man added to the U.S. team as a coaches’ discretionary pick, was “untouchable” Thursday, said teammate Bobby Brown in the event’s Olympic debut. Gus Kenworthy won the silver medal and pre-event favorite Nick Goepper grabbed the bronze at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.
“The weather was amazing,” said Christensen, 22. “It was so warm. It was the perfect conditions for us to have a good slopestyle contest. I’m so happy to be on top and with my two really good friends. Go America!”
The sweep was only the third by Team USA in Winter Games history. Ross Powers, Danny Kass and Jarret Thomas topped the halfpipe snowboarding podium in 2002 while Hayes Alan Jenkins, Ronnie Robertson and Hayes’ younger brother, David Jenkins, swept the men’s figure skating competition in 1956.
“Wow, really?” Goepper said when told of the rarity of a U.S. sweep. “No way. I think it’s crazy. I think it’s going to give the U.S. a lot more confidence and I think it’s going to get a lot of people really excited.”
Even U.S. slopestyle skiing coach Skogen Sprang couldn’t believe it. “I think I’m still kind of in shock,” he said. “You don’t really talk about that before. The chance was there, but you don’t really expect it to happen.”
The competition was a showcase to display the sport’s rapid progression through new tricks on the rails and jumps.
“There are guys bringing on new tricks every day,” said Goepper, who won the last two X Games and was the world cup leader. “Everyone waited to bring the big guns out in the Olympics.”
Christensen, who was named to the team in January after winning a grand prix event in his hometown of Park City, Utah, posted three of the top four runs of the day. He was the only skier to score in the 90s in the qualification round. He then banked a 95.80 on his first run and a 93.80 on his second.
His big gun was a switch triple corked 1440.
“I learned that trick two or three days ago in one of the practice sessions,” said Christensen. “I knew once I learned it, I really had to put it in my run if I wanted a chance to make it on the podium, so I threw it a few times right before finals and just stuck with it.”
Sprang said Christensen has a “really creative rail line and amazing style. He grabs all the different grabs and grabs really well.”
Kenworthy and Christensen have known each other since they were 12 years old.
“He just skied beautifully this year,” Kenworthy said. “It’s really awesome, I’m so happy I got to watch him today and seeing him put down both of his runs, I think he definitely deserved the gold and I couldn’t be prouder.
“If he had a character flaw, I’d say he’s too nice. He’s such a good guy. I’m so stoked for him.”
Christensen’s season began with tragedy. His father, James Dale, died in August. Christensen found out while he was on his way to the first world cup in New Zealand.
“I hope I made my father proud,” Christensen said in the post-event event press conference as Goepper put his arm around him. “He supported me from day one through all the injuries I had which scare parents. He never said, ‘Stop.’
“I did it for him.”
Goepper fell on his first run in the qualifying, so was relieved to land a solid second run and advance. In the final, he had the second-best score on the first run, a 92.40, while Kenworthy had a poor outing and scored 31.0.
Kenworthy improved to 93.60 on his second run, which featured a double corked 1620, the highest degree rotation completed in the competition. Goepper couldn’t surpass him. Brown, the fourth American in the final, finished ninth with a score of 78.40.
“It was the best run I’ve ever done,” Kenworthy said. “Just waiting for the score and having everyone chanting U-S-A, it was overwhelming. It’s just been really crazy.”
As one of the fans called out, “United States of Awesome!”