KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – A newly minted American medalist was sharing his thoughts – something about making history – when a certain song ringing out from fans in the stands stopped him midstream.
“The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Yes, they were skiing in Russia. But on a warm-and-sunny afternoon that goes down as the greatest in the history of a young sport making its Olympic debut, the slopestyle ski course was All-American.
Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper swept the podium for the United States on Thursday in slopestyle skiing, each throwing down versions of their sport’s vaunted triple-cork jump to capture one of the rarest triples of all: gold, silver and bronze.
It was only the third time Americans have swept an event at the Winter Games, and the first since 2002, when a trio of snowboarders in Utah did it in the halfpipe to truly bring their sport into the mainstream. The slopestyle medalists were well aware of what they’d accomplished in matching that feat.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better way to debut this sport to the world,” Goepper said.
Taken separately, any of these history-making young men would have woven their own wonderful story on the day of their resplendent, high-flying Olympic debuts. On this day, they came as a package deal.
Christensen, 22, of Park City, Utah, was the last add-on to the American team, hitting his form at just the right time after a six-month period of heartbreak that began when his father, J.D., died of a heart condition. Christensen was traveling to New Zealand for a contest when his dad died. He landed, turned around and flew back home.
“I hope he’s looking down and smiling, and I hope I made him proud,” Christensen said.
Kenworthy, 22, of Telluride, Colo., has generated buzz at the Olympics as a dog lover. He found a stray mom and her litter of four near a bus stop in the mountains and has been tweeting photos of himself with the dogs, making arrangements to bring them back to America.
Goepper, 19, of Lawrenceburg, Ind., grew up in hoops country, but as a kid, he preferred bumming rides to the 300-foot-high ski resort nearby. He sold candy bars and worked odd jobs to pay for the start of his career.
“Wow, really?” Goepper said when he learned about his place in history. “It’s crazy. I think it’s going to give the U.S. a lot more confidence and it’s going to get a lot of people really excited.”
The day and the course were tailor-made for triple corks – filled with sunshine that made for forgiving, slushy snow on the steeply angled jumps. It was so warm that the other American in the field, Bobby Brown, skied in short sleeves.
A week ago, snowboarders ripped those jumps as too dangerous, but by Thursday, the skiers called them a slopestyler’s best friend.
“This course is more than big enough to do these tricks,” Kenworthy said. “Everyone wants an Olympic medal. It’s a reason worth sending it.”
Christensen sent it best. His trick is called a “switch, right-triple 1260 Japan,” which means he skis backward into the jump, turns to his right, then whips out three head-over-heels flips while grabbing a ski and whirring through 3 1/2 revolutions of spin.
Even more amazing: “He picked up his switch triple just a few days ago,” U.S. freeskiing coach Skogen Sprang said.
“He’s got amazing rotation and style,” Sprang said. “He was pretty much the riders’ favorite today.”
Christensen finished first in qualifying, which put him last in the lineup for finals, where every rider gets two runs and their best score counts. His first run was worth 95.8 points. First place.
None of the 11 other skiers could top him in their second runs. When Norway’s Andreas Haatveit went second-to-last and scored a 91.8, the Americans had the sweep.
That turned Christensen’s second run into a victory ride, and in true action-sport fashion, he put on a show. He closed with the triple, and though he didn’t nail the landing perfectly, he still scored a 93.8 – the second-highest score of the day.
All this American dominance is no coincidence.
The United States has the best snow, the most-accessible mountains, the highest-quality terrain parks. Pretty good skiers, too. A year ago, Tom Wallisch was considered a medal favorite for this event. He skied on an injured knee this winter and didn’t make the team.
“They just come with depth and their numbers and all their little park rats,” Canadian coach Toben Sutherland said.
Long after the Canadians and the rest had left, the American skiers walked off the base of the course with Old Glory draped across their backs. The stands were mostly empty, save a few pockets of people wearing red, white and blue.
A few were still belting out the national anthem.
“I think,” Goepper said, “we’re going to hear that song a few more times over the next 48 hours.”
The first U.S. trio to sweep an event was the 1956 men’s figure skating team. Five decades later, Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas swept snowboarding in the halfpipe in Salt Lake City. That win was a much-needed highlight for the host country only months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a key moment in America’s transformation into a Winter Olympics power.
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