USA’s Christensen, Kenworthy, Goepper sweep men’s Olympic slopestyle final

February 13th, 2014 by

 

Freeskiing history was made today as the first-ever men’s Olympic ski slopestyle competition was held at Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort, outside of Sochi, Russia. Better yet, Olympic history was made as 22-year-old Joss Christensen of Park City, Utah led fellow teammates Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper to a U.S. sweep of the podium; this marks the third time in the life of the Winter Games that the United States have swept a medal event. (Previously: 1956, with men’s figure skating and in 2002: snowboard halfpipe.)

Dropping first in finals: Bobby Brown. Brown put together an outstanding run, but went down on his last hit: a triple cork 14; he reached for the mute grab, once, twice, three times, but failed to lock on—the missed grab likely affected his rotation.

The next highlight came as Henrik Harlaut stomped an absolutely massive nose butter triple cork 1620 on the first jump in the course. Some of the nearby media folk who had witnessed the snowboarding slopestyle events live, as well, said that between all of the four slopestyle events, Harlaut had—without a doubt—the largest air they’d seen on that first booter. Alas, he was unable to log a solid score.

For the next short while, the contest moved fairly slowly. We saw “wash” runs for Jossi Wells, Aleks Aurdal, Øystein Bråten and Alex Beaulieu-Marchand. Russ Henshaw logged an OK score: 80.40.

Gus Kenworthy was en route to stomping a top-notch run, but on his last hit, couldn’t put the switch triple cork 14 to his feet. After a tech rail segment, his first two hits consisted of a left double cork 16 tail and a switch right double 10 Japan.

After that stretch of trouble, Nick Goepper stomped one clean. The Indiana native showcased the trademark execution we’ve come to expect from him, capping his run with a slow-spinning triple cork 14 mute to double Japan.

James Woods of the UK put one down clean, as well, followed by Andreas Håtveit, who also stomped.

Then: Christensen. After topping this morning’s qualifier, Christensen carried his momentum into the final round, banking a 95.80 on his first run of two. He dominated the rails up top and followed up with a left double cork 1260 double Japan on his first hit, a switch right double cork 1080 tail on jump two, and a switch right triple 1260 Japan on the final kicker. He stood in the finish corral, awaiting scores, and when the results finally flashed across the screen, he nearly collapsed. Then came the smile.

Chants of “USA, USA!” erupted among the spectators.

The sun was shining brightly. The temps were warm. The grand stand was full of rowdy fans, and the surrounding peaks made for a beautiful backdrop. The atmosphere was incredible. At one point, the masses dropped into the ol’ “wave,” three times over.

Brown dropped in for his second run. He put it to his feet, albeit with less than perfect landings on his first few hits, as he touched down in a bit of a sit-tuck; he also opted out of the triple on the final jump. Nevertheless, ’twas a great showing from one of slopestyle’s great icons.

Again, Harlaut sent a nose butter triple cork to the absolute bottom of the landing on table #1. The rest of his run was certainly strong, too, but after two runs, our 2013 Skier of the Year sat in 5th place.

Again, we experienced a fairly slow stretch. Aurdal put one down, but we saw throw-away runs from Bråten, Henshaw and Beaulieu-Marchand.

Kenworthy came next. He came. He stomped. He conquered. He executed masterfully the switch triple that had given him trouble on his first go round. As he swung into the finish area at high speed, he clicked out of his skis in excitement and threw his poles to the ground. And as the scores came in, the look of excitement on his face—now, that’s the stuff that’ll stand out in our minds as we reflect on this event, years from now.

Goepper had a few bobbles on his second run, and being the true showman that he is, elected to send a massive double backflip over the third jump. The audience approved. Perhaps the favorite to win the gold medal heading into this event, the back-to-back X Games champ would settle for third—at least for the moment.

With Christensen sitting first and Kenworthy second, only Norway’s Andreas Håtveit could shake the standings. The 27-year-old veteran put another run to his feet, but it was clear: it wouldn’t be enough. At the top of the course, Christensen stood in the start gate, ready for his second run, when the official word came in: the Olympic gold was his to keep.

For the Americans in attendance, the realization was shocking, as it was exhilarating: USA just swept the podium. USA just put a giant exclamation point on freeskiing’s Olympic debut.

“I think today was a good showing of our sport. Hopefully the world recognizes how much fun we’re having.” – Christensen

We touched earlier upon the momentum that Christensen carried from qualifiers to finals. When you trace back to where that momentum began to build, however, we date back to late December, when the Olympic qualifying period kicked off in Breckenridge, CO.

Amid the hectic stretch of Olympic qualifying events, five in total, spanning a six week period, Joss had bagged a handful of respectable finishes, but nothing that would have put him in immediate contention for a spot on the Sochi-bound roster. Then, Saturday, January 18, on his home turf at Park City Mountain Resort, Joss skied his way to a gold medal at the U.S. Grand Prix; it was his first major contest win.

Yet, even with a first place finish under his belt, Joss hadn’t officially qualified for the U.S. Olympic freeskiing team. He was, however, certainly in contention for the much-talked-about “coaches’ discretion” spot. While Goepper, Brown and Kenworthy had secured an Olympic berth, other frontrunners in the hunt for that fourth and final spot included Tom Wallisch, Alex Schlopy and McRae Williams. On January 21, after much debate and speculation, the USSA announced Christensen had received the nod.

On the phone: Joss Christensen reacts to being selected to the Olympic team.

“After watching him in Park City, we started to get a real’ strong feeling about his momentum and his skiing,” said Mike Jankowski, head coach of US Snowboarding and US Freeskiing, and head coach for the US Olympic halfpipe and slopestyle teams. “During training here, we had a very good feeling that he was going to be a gold medal favorite. The nuts and bolts of his run… the way it’s put together, it’s about as close to a perfect run as you can get.”

It’s true: Christensen has been skiing his way into the hearts of freeskiers across the globe, of late, packing a versatile and stylish skill set, combining ultra tech rail abilities with powerhouse airs. Most impressive about Christensen’s skiing? His ability to add a unique approach to the slopestyle course. He’s known to pick creative lines from top to bottom that help him to stand out from the rest of the field.

Given Christensen’s recent success (he placed sixth at X Games Aspen, shortly after taking the win at Park City), it was no surprise to see him emerge as top dog here on the grand stage. Jankowski explained how Joss and the rest of the U.S. squad have been in a great position from the get go, ever since they arrived in Russia.

“The way these guys were riding all throughout training [here in Sochi] was just building, building, building. About two or three days [into our stay here], the runs these guys were throwing down was next level. All four [Christensen, Kenworthy, Goepper and Brown] were doing multiple triples every day. I was watching the other competitors, and everyone is riding strong, as well, but I just had this feeling… from what I was seeing, that our team was riding stronger. They made a huge statement here today, bringing home three medals for the USA.”

In regards to the triples: Christensen stomped his first-ever switch triple earlier this week. Since then, he’s landed every single one he’s attempted—a total of eight or nine. And what better time to step up to the plate? The man certainly had much to prove.

Joss Christensen, switch right triple1260 for the gold medal.

Joss Christensen, switch right triple 1260 for the gold medal. Photo: Nate Abbott.

“It was definitely an honor to make the team,” Christensen said. “I just wanted to show everyone that [the USSA] made a good choice [in selecting me to the team]. I hoped to prove myself here. I didn’t try to put any more pressure on myself. I tried to ski like I do in a normal contest, to do my best and have fun with it.”

A valiant strategy, indeed. Though, how many of the contests this year have been truly, “normal?” Christensen spoke to the stressful nature of the Olympic qualifying process:

“It’s definitely been crazy. We’ve been going hard since early December. We got into full-on contest mode, going from competition, to competition, to competition. We’ve been on top of it, trying to ski our hardest. I can’t believe we made it all the way through, it’s been a long journey.”

Having made this experience all the more trying for Christensen is the fact that his father, J.D., passed away in August at the age of 67. This afternoon, Christensen honored his father’s memory.

“I hope I made my father proud,” he said. “He’s been supporting me from day one, through all the injuries I’ve had, which I know scares some parents a lot. He’s always supported me, he never told me to stop. I wish he was here, but I hope he’s looking down and smiling. I hope I made him proud, I did it for him.”

Christensen’s mother, Debbie, was on site today to witness her son’s performance—a performance that is propelling the sport of freeskiing into new homes, creating new fans and participants.

“I’m so excited to showcase this sport to the world,” said Kenworthy following the contest. “I couldn’t be more proud. This is all just so overwhelming.”

Goepper, too, touched on this idea of sharing skiing with a new audience. “We’re all trying to keep up with each other on a daily basis in terms of competition,” he said. “Today confirmed that anyone can win a slopestyle contest on any given day. It was a great day for freeskiing.”

Christensen added, “I think today was a good showing of our sport. Hopefully the world recognizes how much fun we’re having.”

Men’s Olympic Slopestyle Skiing Results:

1. CHRISTENSEN Joss USA 95.80
2. KENWORTHY Gus USA 93.60
3. GOEPPER Nicholas USA 92.40
4. HÅTVEIT Andreas NOR 91.80
5. WOODS James GBR 86.60
6. HARLAUT Henrik SWE 84.40
7. AURDAL Aleksander NOR 81.80
8. HENSHAW Russell AUS 80.40
9. BROWN Bobby USA 78.40
10. BRÅTEN Øystein NOR 66.40
11. WELLS Josiah NZL 60.60
12. BEAULIEU-MARCHAND Alex CAN 21.40

Related: Dara Howell wins Olympic slopestyle gold; Logan silver, Lamarre bronze

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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.