With Shaun White sitting out the inaugural Olympic slopestyle competition, the United States landed only one snowboarder into the medal round of the men’s competition. One was all they would need, as 20-year-old Sage Kotsenburg reached the finals and beat the rest of the elite field to claim the first gold medal of Sochi 2014.
Eschewing the triple cork for a backside 1620 Japan, Kotsenburg nailed the best score of the finals on his first jump with a technically-sound and deceptively-creative run that impressed judges looking for the new new thing. Going against convention, Kotsenburg also threw in a cab double 1260 with a Holy Crail grab (grabbing the board first with his trailing arm before catching the top with his leading arm) that exemplified the break from big air convention being attempted by the rest of the field.
In the process he knocked off a field that featured three Canadians expected to lead the way in the absence of both White and Norway’s Torstein Horgmo, who broke his collarbone in a training-run crash on the hill prior to the Olympics. Max Parrot and Sebastien Toutant qualified directly for the finals and looked like the favorites for the gold heading into the medal round, while Mark McMorris was gritting his way gamely through a fractured rib incurred at the X Games in January and was forced to jump in the semifinals to book a place.
Yet it was McMorris that would make his way onto the podium in the end, the veteran putting together the best run among the three Canucks in the finals to take the bronze medal. Parrot would slip from the top score in the preliminaries to fifth place in the final, while Toutant stumbled several times en route to a ninth-place finish at Krasnaya Polyana.
Horgmo’s compatriot, Staale Sandbech, would pip McMorris for the silver, but in the end McMorris managed to do something I certainly hadn’t expected before the competition commenced (or even after he spilled out in his first run of the preliminaries). While Kotsenburg will be remembered for making the Olympic version of slopestyle into something more than merely a contest of technical proficiency executing the popular trick of the moment, McMorris will be remembered for exemplifying how much it means for every Olympian to compete on the largest global stage for their respective sports.
After a series of injuries and withdrawals zapped the field of some of what was perceived to be its star power, the athletes actually on the mountain of the Sochi Olympics slopestyle course showed that the truly interesting part of the sport is a celebration of the athleticism required to execute such complex maneuvers. Ultimately substance became style, and slopestyle kicked off what should be a long and exciting Olympic existence with an exciting fight for the podium in its first appearance on the winter program.