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Krasnaya Polyana, Russia •
Nobody thought Sage Kotsenburg could win.
The laid-back dude with the wavy blonde hair and charmingly "gnarly" personality was stylish, no doubt, but he wasn't the guy with the biggest tricks among the competitors at the snowboarding slopestyle competition at the Sochi Olympics on Saturday. Nor was he the kind of guy who was going to aspire to one massive spinning flip after another in a desperate pursuit of top scores.
"I'm not going to let a score judge how I snowboard," he said. "I'm not going to succumb to just doing the normal stuff and not how I really snowboard, because I think it's whack. It just kept going and kept it weird."
So with that nod to snowboarding's roots in free-flowing, individualistic expression, the 20-year-old from Park City laid down some of the best and most interesting runs of his life at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on Saturday, and walked away with a stunning gold medal that felt like a sudden rebuke of the more acrobatic tricks that have come to dominate the sport.
"It's pretty sick to see that some weird, creative stuff got rewarded," Kotsenburg said.
The kid who grew up shredding at Park City Mountain Resort became the first medalist of the Sochi Olympics, and the first ever in slopestyle, the close relative of halfpipe snowboarding added to the Olympics for the first time here. He said he hadn't won anything since he was 11 years old, until winning the final Olympics qualifying event last month.
"It's just unreal the amount of pride you feel standing on the podium," he said. "I was just on cloud nine up there and couldn't even think of anything else besides being with my friends and staring at that American flag going up the pole."
Kotsenburg did it by being himself, basically.
By nature willing to impulsively try "random" things on the course, Kotsenburg threw together a variety of grabs and spins in the semifinals that he'd never tried before, and wound up "pretty hyped" to see some of the highest scores after complaining just two days earlier after qualifying that he wasn't getting enough credit for his unique style.
"A lot of people in here were upset," he said. "I'm not going to do a run [with a lot of tricks] just because that's what they want to see. … I hope the judging changes. I wouldn't want to even watch if it doesn't."
Kotsenburg even seemed resigned before the semifinals, saying on Twitter that "it all ends today for slopestyle, but remember what snowboarding is about."
That resignation started to turn to jubilation, though, once Kotsenburg saw what was happening with the scores. Suddenly, he was seeing higher marks for his work, and those with the big tricks either had a hard time landing them all cleanly or weren't getting the top scores to which they had grown accustomed.
"Maybe they heard me," he said of the judges, "maybe they heard everybody else."
Either way, Kotsenburg celebrated giddily with his American teammates, and walked away with a medal that many thought would belong only to somebody who could manage several of the heralded "triple corks" three head-over-heels flips, the presumptive must-have trick for Sochi on his way down the course of rails and jumps.
"Spin-to-win" is how Finland's Roope Tonteri described the usual approach.
But Kotsenburg turned all that on its head.
He earned the best score of the day, 93.50, on his first run of the final, populated most prominently by a "Holy Crail," a grab Kotsenburg invented by combining two other grabs.
Characteristically, he also decided at the last moment to throw in a move he had "never even thought about doing before that run," a so-called "back 1620 Japan" four-and-a-half revolutions while grabbing the board behind his back.
The result is something that looks drastically different from what most other riders are doing.
"I just had this idea in my mind all day, and it ended up working out," he said. "I called my brother and I talked to my … coach, and I was just like, 'I think I might go 16-back Japan.' He was just, like, 'Send it. What do you have to lose?' And I ended up landing it."
"That's kind of what I'm all about," he added.
Norway's Staale Sandbech won the silver medal, after bouncing happily with Kotsenburg on the inflatable barriers around the finish area as the last riders came down the course, and Canada's Mark McMorris earned bronze just weeks after suffering a rib injury that threatened his medal chances.
Both McMorris and countryman Max Parrot are former Winter X Champions who were considered favorites with their triple-corks, and they continued to fuel the judging debate even while praising Kotsenburg for his unique approach.
"I do think there's some work to be done in judging," Parrot said.
The event took place without snowboarding icon Shaun White, the two-time halfpipe champion who withdrew from slopestyle on Wednesday because he said he wanted to focus on winning the halfpipe again. Norway's Torstein Horgmo also was missing, after breaking his collarbone during a pre-race training session.
But that hardly mattered to Kotsenburg or Ireland's Seamus O'Connor, the 16-year-old from Park City who didn't make the final but landed a triple cork for the first time in the semis.
"I couldn't ask for anything more," he said.
One of four children of snowboarding parents Steve Kotsenburg is a real-estate agent in Park City, while Carol Ann helps organize schedules and travel Kotsenburg earned his winning score on just the third run of the 12-man, two-run final, and had to wait nervously after his second run to see if it would stand up.
When it finally did, he had his historic gold medal, and a chance to ponder whether he'd just changed the entire direction of his sport.
"It'd be pretty sick to see everyone mix it up a little bit," he said with a gleeful smile, "get a little more creative in there."