SOCHI, Russia – Sage Kotsenburg was 10 minutes away from the first of his two runs in the Olympic slopestyle final, the most important snowboard ride of his life. So to use one of his favorite words, this was the perfect time to do something “random.”
Kotsenburg, 20, had decided to unveil a new move if he advanced to the slopestyle finals. Now he was having second thoughts. So with his run fast approaching, he grabbed a cellphone from the backpack of his wax technician and called his brother back home in Park City, Utah.
It was 2 a.m. in Utah. No problem. Sage knew his family and friends would be gathering to watch the first-ever Olympic slopestyle, in which riders descend a course consisting of rails and jumps. His 22-year-old brother, Blaze, who had gotten him into snowboarding, picked up the telephone.
“Hey, it’s me!” Sage said.
“Whaaatt??” his brother said. “Everybody be quiet, he shouted to the other people in the house. “It’s Sage. I can’t hear him.”
Then Kotsenburg told Blaze he wanted to end his run with a “1620 Japan Grab,” a risky, four-and-one-half revolution backside maneuver that he had never tried before. Was this really the time to risk a brand-new move?
“Man, you got to do it,” Blaze told him. “You’re at the Olympics!”
“All right, Dude,” Kotsenburg said. “I’m going to send it.”
Then it was time to go. Talking with Blaze had eased some of the pressure.
Hey, Kotsenburg had surprised himself by even making the final. So when he “dropped in” to begin the slopestyle course at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, he felt remarkably calm.
He cruised through the top of the course, then nailed his signature move, a spinning “Cab Double Cork 270” he calls the “Holy Crail.” He thought to himself, “This is going too well.” Kotsenburg briefly thought of playing it safe at the end. The judges never seemed to appreciate his more exotic stuff.
But it wasn’t his style to settle for the safe, predictable thing. Two days earlier, in fact, Kotsenburg had tweeted this out to his 17,000 followers: “I’d rather not conform to make the judges happy.”
Kotsenburg, who had developed a reputation in the sport as a perennial runner-up, came to the final jump and didn’t conform. With his long blond hair flapping beneath his helmet, he went for the 1620 and he executed it perfectly, capping the best run of his life.
“I could not believe I landed that on the first try,” he said later. “I’d never even tried it before, literally. Never, ever tried it before in my life.”
Kotsenburg looked up in astonishment when his score (93.50) flashed on the board. It was the first of two runs. He’d have to make a second run and wait out the competition. But he was pretty sure it would be worth a medal.
It stood up for gold. Kotsenburg beat out longtime pals Staale Sandbech of Norway, who won silver, and Canada’s Mark McMorris, the pre-Olympic favorite, who took bronze. During the medal ceremony, Kotsenburg pulled Sandbech and McMorris onto the top of the podium with him.
“I’ve been friends with those guys since I was 15,” Kotsenburg said, “and I don’t know anybody else I’d rather share it with. It was like, ‘Yeah, come up, it’s for everyone.’ It was the first time for slopestyle, so we were all so stoked, anyway. It was sick to have us all on the top.”
Stoked, sick, random, crazy, gnarly. The guy has the classic boarder vocabulary. He used “stoked” 14 times in his news conference Saturday afternoon. Soon after he won, a Twitter feed comparing him with Sean Penn’s “Spicoli” character on “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” went viral.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the movie,” Kotsenburg said. “That is sick. I’m so down. That was pretty awesome someone did that. I’m stoked ... that old Spicoli!”
On Friday night, he watched “Fight Club” for inspiration while eating chocolate and onion rings and chips. Kotsenburg formed five onion rings into the Olympic rings and tweeted that out.
He was determined to march in the Opening Ceremonies, but decided against it when someone told him he’d never get back before 1 a.m. So he watched in dismay as U.S. athletes left for the show in their spiffy Ralph Lauren outfits.
“I had the best sleep I’ve had since I got here,” he said. “I definitely made the right choice, but it was definitely a bummer not walking with everyone.”
Kotsenburg didn’t ascend to the stadium floor with the U.S. delegation on Friday, but by Saturday afternoon he was America’s rising star, the first gold medalist of the Sochi Games and the first U.S. winter athlete to be the first gold medalist of an Olympics in 62 years.
The first Olympic slopestyle event lost a lot of its star power when Shaun White dropped out to concentrate on halfpipe. Who knew that a laid-back guy who hates working out, looks like “Spicoli” and puts selfie photos of himself on social media would become the next big thing in extreme sports?
“Honestly it feels like a dream,” Kotsenburg said, “just wining the gold on the first day, the first time slopestyle ever being in the Olympics. It’s the craziest day ever. I thought about it a little bit, but I didn’t really think it would happen. It’s too much to take in all at once.
“I’m really stoked,” he said. “This is all in one day, too. It feels like already a week ago that it happened.”
He said he wished White could have taken part. White is the face of snowboarding, a superstar who has lifted everyone in the sport with him. But Kotsenburg said it’s nice for the world to know there are other athletes who can do remarkable things on a board.
We love the Olympics for performances like this, when an athlete has the guts to stretch the limits of possibility, to reach for the previously unimaginable, and finds gold.
“You have to think out of the box every once in a while and bring it back to being creative,” Kotsenburg said. “That’s where snowboard started. We’re riding a piece of wood with plastic on it down a hill, hitting rails and jumps. It’s like, the randomest idea ever.”