SOCHI, RUSSIA – Don’t worry, Team USA. The shredder kids have your back.
Americans Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper swept the podium in men’s slopestyle skiing Thursday, putting on a spectacular show to boost America’s lagging medal count and provide the U.S. team with a jolt from a mountain whose vibe is more spring break than Winter Olympics.
“I am shocked,” Christensen said. “I am stoked to be up here with my friends. America, we did it.”
With style and dominance to spare.
The podium sweep was just the third for the U.S. in Winter Olympic history, joining men’s figure skating in 1956 and men’s halfpipe snowboarding in 2002. All four U.S. gold medals in Sochi have come at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, and Thursday’s haul came 15 hours after Kaitlyn Farrington and Kelly Clark grabbed gold and bronze in women’s halfpipe snowboarding.
“It’s crazy,” Goepper said. “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 Americans were certainly fired up.
Goepper and Kenworthy raised Christensen on their shoulders following what amounted to a victory lap during Christensen’s last run down the mountain. The good friends wore flags as capes in the giddy aftermath of their victory in the sport’s Olympic debut.
Christensen was the last slopestyle skier named to the Olympic team, getting the nod over, among others, former world champion Tom Wallisch. The 22-year-old from Park City, Utah, was easily the best on a sun-splashed day where the weather was so warm that teammate Bobby Brown — who finished ninth — wore only a T-shirt in the finals.
It’s that kind of easy, breeze attitude that permeates a sport predicated on having a good time and testing the limits of what is possible. Nobody is closer to that limit than a U.S. team that has clearly separated itself from the rest of the world.
“It’s the kind of thing you don’t even let yourself think about,” U.S. coach Skogen Sprang said of the medal sweep. “I still don’t believe it happened.”
To be honest, neither could Christensen. He came to Russia hoping to find a spot on the podium. Instead, he owned it, throwing down four practically flawless runs over the series of rails and jumps that are the equivalent of a skier’s playground.
He led qualifying and insisted he had plenty left for the finals.
Christensen’s three off-axis jumps at the end of his first qualifying run totaled 10 full spins in the span of 15 seconds — all coming while he skied over the ramp backward. His first run in the finals won the gold, and his second would have been good enough to win silver.
“I can’t believe we made it,” Christensen said. “It’s been a long journey.”
A painful one, too. Christensen lost his father J.D. in August and got the news while training in New Zealand. The last six months have been a mix of grieving and renewed focus for a skier whose lengthy list of injuries includes a pair of broken wrists and microfracture surgery in his knee.
It all slowed Christensen, but didn’t stop him.
“I hope I made my father proud,” he said. “Through all the injuries I’ve had, he’s always supported me and never said stop. I Hope he’s looking down and smiling. Did it for him.”
Christensen’s first run in the finals produced a 95.80, giving the rest of the 12-man field a target to beat. None could top the kid with the floppy blonde hair and easy smile that seems to embody a sport that often looks like it’s just a bunch of guys taking turns showing off.
Kenworthy, from Telluride, Colo., was already planning to head back home with a family of stray dogs that call the streets of Sochi home. Now they’ll have some company — a silver medal. He raised his arms over his head after his second finals run and busted out laughing when his score of 93.60 was revealed.
Goepper, the gold medal favorite from Lawrenceburg, Ind., dropped a 92.40 during his first finals run but couldn’t top it in the second. He smacked his skis against the second rail feature, ending his chance of leapfrogging Christensen.
Not that it mattered.
“I feel amazing,” he said. “I think today was the best display of skiing we have ever seen in our sport, so I am so happy.”
Norway’s Andreas Haatveit was the final skier with a chance to break the U.S.’s grip on the podium. While his last trip was slick, he seemed to know he would come up short he crossed the finish line. Haatveit put his hands together as if to pray, then shrugged and gave the Americans a push when he ended up fourth.
With a gold medal assured, Christensen didn’t exactly take it easy on his final run.
Twisting and flipping his way to his teammates, he pumped his arms in celebration. When his score was posted, the roar quickly morphed into chants of “USA! USA!”
“Just competing for the U.S. is so cool,” Christensen said. “We’re all representing. All our stuff has USA on it. It’s not like a normal team that we’re used to. We can be proud to be on this team. Today was a good showing of our sport. Hopefully world recognizes how much fun we’re having.”