KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — With an American flag draped across his shoulders and a new gold medal hanging from his neck, Sage Kotsenburg wore the kind of smile that could melt snow.
“I’m pretty surprised I won, honestly,” the 20-year old American snowboarder said Saturday, shortly after shocking many by besting the field in the men’s slopestyle event at the Olympics.
How unlikely was Kotsenburg’s gold-medal win? Well, consider this: Kotsenburg won a Grand Prix event three weeks ago in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Before that, by his own recollection, he hadn’t won a snowboard event since he was 11 years old.
“I had a mega-drought there for a minute. … Coming here and winning, I can’t even describe the feeling. It’s so cool,” he said.
Just two days ago, following Thursday’s qualification round, Kotsenburg spoke out against judging that he felt didn’t reward creativity and instead encouraged “robotic” jumps. Clearly, judges liked what Kotsenburg pulled out Saturday: a stylish run that featured an array of difficult board grabs but not necessarily the event’s biggest eye-popping jumps.
“A lot of people in snowboarding spoke out about what they thought about the judging. Maybe they saw it,” Kotsenburg said. “When you have a whole community of snowboarders thinking the judging is off, you got to take something into consideration, like, ‘Hey, maybe we should be rewarding this more.’”
Kotsenburg’s winning run included a newly-invented grab called the Holy Crail – so named by a fan – and a jump the rider had never even attempted before, a 1620 Japan – 4 ½ rotations with a behind-the-back board grab.
“I never really make a plan up. I had no idea I was even going to do a 1620 in my run until, like, three minutes before I dropped,” he said. “That’s kind of what I’m all about, just kind of being random.”
Bronze medalist Mark McMorris impressively landed two triple corks in his run, while Kotsenburg won gold without attempting a single one. There is already some discussion as to whether McMorris was underscored – and many questions from Canadian reporters seemed to focus on this possibility.
“I think all of the 12 riders don’t really know how the judges were scoring things. …We’re not really knowing what’s going on with the judges,” said Canadian rider Maxence Parrot, the fifth-place finisher. “We don’t know how they score us, we don’t know what they’re looking for on the slope. That, I think, is the thing we should get in other contests: to know what judges want to see in the jumps.”
McMorris didn’t hide his disappointment with the scoring in early rounds, but he refrained from being too critical after his third-place run Saturday.
“Just to ride the way I want to ride is the most important thing,” McMorris said. “The rest is up to the judges, and I’m happy with everything, the outcome. A lot of people think it should have been different, but I’m going to still smile and represent Canada the best I can.”
All of the riders were outspoken Saturday in their support of each other. Kotsenburg seemed more surprised than his fellow competitors that he was the one who finished at the top of the podium. His goals at the Olympics were a bit more modest. And after he failed Thursday to automatically qualify for the finals – which forced him to battle his way through the semifinals – Kotsenburg certainly couldn’t have predicted he’d be the man to beat Saturday afternoon.
“When I showed up, I just wanted to make the finals. I ended up having to go through semifinals,” he said. “I woke up today, not even really thinking about finals, thinking about semifinals first. Once I got into finals, I was like, alright, I can just let it really rip, you know?”
On the biggest stage, he went for broke, not letting expectations, an uncertain scoring system or his own history in the sport dictate his run.
“That’s what snowboarding is all about it. It’s based off doing what you want to do,” Kotsenburg said. “There’s no blueprint to snowboarding. You can really make your own mark and put your own flair on tricks.”