In Review: Exploring gold medalist Joss Christensen’s road to, and from Sochi

March 3rd, 2014 by

 

Photos by Nate Abbott and Henrik Lampert. Click to view full screen and captions.

On February 13, 2014, 22-year-old Joss Christensen made freeskiing history, earning the first-ever gold medal awarded for men’s Olympic slopestyle skiing. Making the feat all the more impressive? Christensen was decidedly an underdog heading into the grueling Olympic qualifying season. His road to the top of the podium is one characterized by hard work, the overcoming of adversity, clutch timing and a bit of good fortune, too.

Unlike his counterparts on the slopestyle podium in Sochi, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper, who earned silver and bronze, respectively, Christensen’s name was not among the top contenders for an Olympic berth in December of 2013, just a few short months before the Games were set to begin. Through the first three of five Olympic qualifying contests held on North American soil—hosted during a six-week stretch between December and January—Christensen was unable to secure a podium finish. To fulfill the “objective criteria” needed for Olympic qualification, American athletes would need two top-three finishes. Thus, it came down to this: two U.S. Grand Prix events, to be held in two consecutive days on Christensen’s home turf: Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR), Utah.

The Road to Sochi:

On the first day, a Friday, Christensen finished fourth—ever so close to the podium. Christensen’s close friend, another Park City local, Alex Schlopy took the win. And while Christensen was happy to have seen Schlopy achieve success, this turn of events certainly didn’t bode well in regards to Christensen’s chances of earning a spot on the United States’ Sochi-bound freeskiing squad. The next day, though, Christensen turned the tables.

Saturday, he skied his way to a first-place finish; this marked Christensen’s first major win on the AFP World Tour. In a day’s work, Christensen caused the debate over who would represent the United States on the world stage to flare, in a big way.

Watch: Christensen’s winning run from the U.S. Grand Prix at Park City Mountain Resort.

With only one podium finish to his name amid the qualifying events, Christensen hadn’t fulfilled the criteria to earn a spot on the Olympic roster. Meanwhile, three others had completed the task: Goepper, Kenworthy and Bobby Brown. Note: While Goepper had punched his ticket to Sochi (unofficially) at Copper Mountain, earlier in January, Kenworthy and Brown secured their spots last minute, at PCMR. With that, they would breath a hefty sigh of relief. ‘Twas a stressful weekend for the athletes, to say the least.

With Goepper, Kenworthy and Brown marked a “go,” there was one fourth and final spot that was suddenly up in the air.

Had Schlopy hit the podium on that second day of competition at PCMR, he’d surely be heading to Russia. Alas, things didn’t go his way. The fourth spot would thus be determined by “coaches’ discretion,” and Christensen was now a major player.

Also in consideration for the discretion spot: of course, Schlopy. His win at Park City put him near the front of the pack. Slopestyle skiing innovator and powerhouse Tom Wallisch, who struggled through the qualifying season, hampered by a torn ACL, was also a strong candidate; despite lacking top-notch results in the 2013/14 season, Wallisch’s track record wouldn’t be overlooked. Another who endured a difficult qualifying season, McRae Williams’ name was also in the mix. Making things all the more interesting: Wallisch and Williams both call Park City Mountain Resort home, too. The spot is one of the world’s foremost breeding grounds for elite freeskiing talent. The depth of talent among the American slopestyle skiers, those hailing from Park City and beyond, cannot be overstated.

Freeskier speaks with Joss Christensen following his win at the U.S. Grand Prix, PCMR.

For two days, the freeskiing community was left to speculate over who’d be given the nod. Behind closed doors, the coaches and administrators of the U.S. Freeskiing program were hard at work, mulling over contest results and sharing opinions of the skiers’ recent performances.

The announcement finally came. Christensen was the chosen one.

The decision stirred controversy. Wallisch, in particular, has a cult following among the freeskiing community, and many outspoken fans were up in arms. Yet, as Mike Jankowski, head coach of the U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Freeskiing teams, told us, Christensen’s momentum leading up to, and performance in Park City sealed the deal. “Janks” and his partners were certain that should Christensen put down a run in Sochi, he would be in contention for a spot on the podium.

On the phone: Christensen reacts to earning the coaches’ discretion spot.

In the sound bite above, Michael Jaquet, CMO of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association, and coach Skogen Sprang inform Joss of his nomination to the team. Furthermore, Jaquet explains to Joss that in regards to his winning run in Park City, “[judge, Josh] Loubek said it was the best slopestyle run he’d ever seen.” With that kind of statement from the top, Joss became increasingly aware of his potential to succeed in Sochi.

With the U.S. Olympic freeskiing roster in place, we turned the page to X Games Aspen. The Winter Olympic Games were one week away. In Aspen, Christensen finished sixth. While he beat out Wallisch, silencing some of the critics, McRae Williams finished second. It simply goes to reaffirm the previous statement pertaining to the depth of the United States’ talent pool.

A Look Back:

Before stepping forward, we take a quick step back. While we’ve referred to Christensen as an underdog, we’d be remiss not to touch on his prior competition history.

In 2011, Christensen earned a slew of noteworthy finishes:

1st, Big air, New Zealand Winter Games, Cardrona
5th, Slopestyle, New Zealand Open, Cardrona
8th, Slopestyle, New Zealand Winter Games, Cardrona
9th, Slopestyle, Dew Tour, Breckenridge

One year later, more still:

2nd, Halfpipe, Aspen/Snowmass Open, Aspen
3rd, Slopestyle, Aspen/Snowmass Open, Aspen
3rd, Slopestyle, WSI/AFP World Championships, Whistler
3rd, Slopestyle, WSI/AFP World Championships, Whistler
3rd, Halfpipe, The North Face Park & Pipe Open, Whistler
3rd, Slopestyle, U.S. Grand Prix, Mammoth Mountain
4th, Year-end AFP overall standings
7th, Halfpipe, Dew Tour, Killington
7th, Slopestyle, X Games Tignes
8th, Slopestyle, Dew Tour, Snowbasin

After overcoming a knee injury, late in 2012, Christensen still managed to post up a handful of finishes in 2013:

3rd, Big air, Paul Mitchell Progression Session, Park City, UT
3rd, Slopestyle, Dumont Cup, Sunday River
5th, Year-end AFP overall standings
5th, Slopestyle, WSI/AFP World Championships, Whistler
8th, Slopestyle, X Games Aspen
10th, Slopestyle, X Games Tignes

Heading into the Olympic qualifying events, Christensen was contending with the loss of his father, J.D., who passed away in August at the age of 67. Showing a great deal of strength, Joss continued to perform at a high level; his results amid the qualifiers—as aforementioned—were as follows:

1st, Slopestyle, U.S. Grand Prix, Park City
4th, Slopestyle, U.S. Grand Prix, Park City
8th, Slopestyle, U.S. Grand Prix, Breckenridge
12th, Slopestyle, U.S. Grand Prix, Copper Mountain

In looking at the results above, it should be clear that Christensen has been a force on both the slopestyle and the halfpipe circuits. Among the freeskiing insiders, though, Christensen is celebrated for his superior skill on the slopestyle course; he combines his technical prowess with ultra smooth style. Moreover, his unique, creative approach to slopestyle courses has made him a favorite among fellow competitors, judges and fans alike.

In Sochi:

With the support of the United States’ coaches, Christensen quickly showed promising return on their investment.

The coaching staff were blown away by the level of skiing that Christensen displayed during early-week training sessions in Sochi. During one of those sessions, Christensen stomped his first-ever switch triple, a maneuver that would help him to win gold just a few short days later.

“We had one really long practice day, the first day it really got warm and the course got comfortable for everyone. After lunch break it got flat light, but the jumps were so good still. I did a bunch of switch dub nines,” said Christensen. “I’ve been thinking about learning a triple for a while but I didn’t think my brain could fathom flipping three times. It was such a spontaneous decision, just halfway up the lip of the jump in practice I just went for the triple and came to my feet. At that point I knew I might have a chance to do well.”

Christensen’s U.S. teammates were also impressed by his skiing, though, to them, his performance didn’t come as a surprise. As Kenworthy explains it, he was simply pleased to see Christensen “skiing to his full potential.”

Eventually, game day arrived. The rest, of course, is history. Freeskier was on site in Sochi to witness the special day, as the Americans skied their way to a sweep of the podium; the event recap can be found here.

Days after Christensen won gold, Freeskier spoke with him about his big win, and his time in Sochi; the sound bite is available below.

Listen: Christensen recaps his experience in Sochi.

In the wake of his win, Christensen has been roped into a whirlwind of a media tour. This week, we caught up with the man to discuss what life has been like ever since topping the podium in Russia.

This Week, Q&A:

Freeskier’s Donny O’Neill asks: You’ve gone through this mass media storm since winning gold and picked up a huge following along the way; how will you use this platform to promote skiing? Have you even thought about that yet?

JC: It’s been pretty insane, the following that I’ve gained since the contest day. It’s nuts, almost everywhere we go, someone will recognize us and it’s just mind blowing to me. When Gus [Kenworthy], Nick [Goepper] and I are walking through the subway, we don’t have any USA gear on, or anything, and people will come up to us and say, ‘Hey you’re those slopestyle skiers.’ It’s been pretty amazing so far. I haven’t really used it too much to try and take advantage for pushing skiing. I’ve been trying to keep everything ski related, and I know most of our following right now is a bunch of younger girls. I’m hoping to be able to take advantage of it and use it as a good outlet to promote skiing, and my own skiing, as well.

Does this new celebrity status alter your self image at all?

JC: In my head I’m still a skier. That’s how I want to describe myself, I’m just a skier. I don’t want to try and be this weird, attention hungry celebrity. I hope everyone loves me for my skiing and for how much fun we’re having with what we’re doing. I’m not going to change and [the fame] is not going to change me. I don’t want to be fake and let people control me. I don’t want to be a puppet. Everything so far has been super amazing and fun, so I think it’s going to die down a little bit, and hopefully everything keeps going well and we can have fun with it and promote skiing to a greater audience.

What was it like being featured on a Corn Flakes box, just hours after winning gold?

JC: That was wild. It was such a big surprise, the whole moment, at least for me, was still so surreal with the competition. It still hadn’t really hit me that we medaled at the Olympics, let alone, I’d won the Olympics. I’m still on cloud nine. [As for the cereal,] I was just laughing in my head to myself… who would have imagined me on the front of a cereal box? I’m still that superfan in my head, just that kid that gets on the computer and follows every sports outlet I can. It’s crazy to be on the other side of it and it’s just such a whirlwind.

Talk about your appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.

JC: Letterman was awesome. We all showed up and tried to dress a little nicer, we didn’t talk to [Letterman] before we went live, but we were briefed about what might be asked in terms of questions. I know with Letterman, he tries to just wing it, and doesn’t try to plan, it’s his show and he does a bit of research on us before. I thought I was going to be pretty nervous, and my heart was definitely beating hard when I was up there, but it was super mellow and Dave was such a cool, laid back guy that was easy to talk to. We had a pretty long segment on there, too. I hope we did good for skiing; it was really fun and something I’m never going to forget. It’s another thing I never thought would happen. Me? Joss? Talking to David Letterman on national TV?

Of all of the people, celebrity or not, that have reached out and congratulated you, who is your favorite?

JC: One really cool one was when I went to Maxim, one of the first days I got back to the US, just to see their offices. They just wanted to talk to me, but I took a photo in front of their current cover of Laura Vandervoort, and she tweeted at me, saying “Joss, I’ll trade you a signed copy [of the magazine] for your medal,” with a bunch of exclamation marks and a winky face. That was the coolest. But, also, I met Carson Daly today, and he congratulated us and that was pretty cool.

When are you going to ski again?

JC: Oh man. I’ve been dying to go skiing, it’s been almost two weeks. The last ski run I took was my second run of the finals, but I’m going home tomorrow and am hopefully going to be skiing on Monday.

What are your plans for the rest of the season?

JC: I’m trying to line some stuff up and trying to do some cool film projects. Right now, I’m planning on doing the Dumont Cup and WSI as the last two slope contests, just to keep [the momentum] going. They’re pretty spaced apart, so I’m just going to dedicate as much time as I can to skiing with my friends at home, not worrying about anything, and hopefully doing some filming at some resorts I’ve never been to. I want to go up to Jackson Hole and try and ski some powder before the spring comes. We’ll see what happens. I really want to make use of the opportunities that I’ve now been given.

Giving Thanks:

While the infamous Rule 40 prevented Christensen from publicly dishing thanks to his sponsors throughout the duration of the Games, we’ll take a moment to give due credit to those who have supported Christensen on his road to the top of the Olympic podium.

Christensen is sponsored by Park City Mountain Resort; romping around its world-class terrain parks with teammates and friends alike has helped Christensen to develop much of the technical tricks and style that won him gold. In 2011, Christensen signed with Fischer Skis and, to this day, remains the company’s marquee park and pipe skier. Christensen represents team Oakley, Rockstar Energy and Giro, as well.

Enjoy more Olympic coverage; visit freeskier.com/olympics.

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About the author:
Henrik Lampert loves hot dogs, backflips, the Boston Bruins and Norway. Twenty-seven years old and a Massachusetts native, he's the Editor of Freeskier Magazine and Freeskier.com—a proud staffer since 2010.