KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — There’s something wonderfully childlike about slopestyle snowboarding -- or, as Norway’s fantastic Staale Sandbech pronounces it, “snowbirding.” Everything about it seems like it emerged from the mind of a precocious 8-year-old. Let’s put some rails on top for people to slide on. Yeah, that’s cool, then let’s have a little jump in the beginning, and then let’s put three giant snow ramps in the course so people can do awesome, huge jumps.
You get the sense that the first slopestyle track was sketched out during a third-grade art class — on construction paper, below a lemon yellow circle surrounded by lines that represents the sun.
Saturday, for the inaugural slopestyle event at the Olympics, there was a lemon yellow sun dangling over Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. There was cool music playing and announcers interspersing Russian, English and French commentary. The snow, which was so hard and fast early in the week that snowboarders complained about conditions, was softening in the sunshine.
“We like it when the snow is a little soft,” Sandbech would say.
And a 20-year-old kid with the utterly unlikely name of Sage Kotsenburg headed into his last of his three jumps. He felt good, felt loose, felt free … or, to use the phrase Kotsenburg likes best, he felt “super mellow.” Hey, why not? He had reached the final of the Olympic Games. The final! It was insane!
How insane? Put it this way: Three weeks ago Kotsenburg won the slopestyle event at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., to clinch his place in the Games. OK? The last time he won before that? When he was 11 years old.
“Whoa how random is this I made the finals at the Olympics!!!” he tweeted after he qualified for the final Saturday morning, the key part being those three exclamation points.
So Kotsenburg was feeling super mellow, but, you know, at the same time, he was feeling super stoked. That’s a pretty good combination. Snowboarding, for Kotsenburg, has never been about medals or victories or glory — that probably should be obvious. It has always been about the snowboarding. The fun. The friendships. The chance to do something so massive and awesome that everyone around shouts out, “Whoa!”
When Kotsenburg was asked his goal in the sport, it wasn’t to win an Olympic gold medal. Sure, if that happened, awesome. But the goal, the real one, is “to make snowboarding look cool and get kids stoked on it.”
Which might explain the crazy thing that happened Saturday. He approached that last jump, and he decided to try a trick that (if it had a name) might be called a “1620 with a Japan Grab.” That basically means doing 4 1/2 rotations in air while also grabbing the snowboard behind the right foot and then pulling back.
Here’s the thing: He had never tried it before. Ever. Not in competition. Not in practice. Not ever. As far as he knows, nobody ever tried it before.
“That’s snowboarding, you know?” he says. “You want to do stuff that’s never been done. You want to follow your own path.”
This has long been Kotsenburg’s way — which might be why he has so rarely won events. He’s the impulsive artist out there, following whatever rhythm happens to be moving him in the moment. Still, you could argue that this was different, this was taking it a little too far. Here he was trying something brand new in the final of the Olympic Games. This is somewhat like a Major League closer, in the ninth inning of the World Series, deciding: “Hey, you know, I’ve never really thrown a knuckleball before. Seems like a good time.”
But this is what I mean about slopestyle being so wonderfully childlike — he’s not the only one out here who would try something brand new at the Olympics just to see if he could. They all want to win — of course they do — but more, they want to play. They try to astonish each other. They like to celebrate each other’s greatest moment. If you can think back to, say, a football or basketball game in the neighborhood, maybe you can remember the joy of playing, the moment when you did something sensational — a fantastic pass, a spectacular catch, a big-time blocks shot — and everybody thought it was just great and THAT mattered more than the game, the score, the victory. It is like this with the snowboarders.
“The judges,” says bronze medalist, and perhaps the world’s best slopestyle snowboarder, Mark McMorris, “are honestly the least of my concerns.”
In other words, Kotsenburg wasn’t trying this crazy new trick to impress the judges or win the Olympics. He was trying it because he felt super mellow and super stoked at the same time, and it just felt like something crazy creative to do. Also, his coach Bill Enos had told him, “I guarantee you’re going to land it.”
And Kotsenburg landed it. His formula was simple: He did his usual 1260 trick (3 1/2 rotations) and then, you know, went one more rotation. Sure. Simple. Kotsenburg landed it, and he immediately knew he had just done something nobody in the history of the world had ever done exactly his way. That’s the whole point. The … whole … point.
“That’s what I do,” he would say. “There’s no blueprint.”
The judges were wowed — they gave him a 93.50, which on this day was sensational. That would win him the first ever slopestyle gold medal. Let’s mention here: There apparently is some controversy about the judging of this sport, just like there is controversy in every other judged sport. Some of the snowboarders think the judges have long rewarded great tricks more than style, which is a problem. Then, on Saturday, some people apparently thought that by giving Kotsenburg such a high score, the judges were rewarding style over great tricks. Another mystery. What is the sound of one-hand clapping? And what would be a fair score for it?
McMorris broke his rib a couple weeks ago but had a fantastic and gutsy final run and took the bronze. He was happy. The silver went to the aforementioned Staale Sandbech of Norway, who was beyond happy — he celebrated by diving head first into the snow. That’s another great thing about slopestyle: Everyone’s happy.
During Sandbech’s medal-winning run, I happened to be sitting next to a Norwegian television booth, and I heard the broadcasters screaming joyfully during Sandbech’s run, then again when the score was posted, and then AGAIN when the final snowboarder was unable to pass him for the silver medal. The screaming was much louder than Al Michaels’ “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” call after the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey beat the Soviets and was a good reminder how much the Olympics mean to countries around the world.
“This was the best snowbirding I’ve ever seen,” Sandbech said afterward. Of course, he said snowboarding, but I prefer it the way he makes it sound. Every Olympic sport — every sport in general — could use just a little snowbirding.