KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Joss Christensen last saw his father at a Utah hospital, stopping in for a visit shortly before he had to board a plane for an important freestyle skiing competition overseas.
“He said, ‘Dad I’m doing this for you. I want you to be proud of me,’ ” recalled Christensen’s mother, Debbie.
By the time Christensen landed in New Zealand, where he was set to begin his quest to make the U.S. Olympic team, his father had died. James Dale Christensen, whom everyone around Park City, Utah, called JD, was 67. Christensen immediately abandoned his skiing plans.
“I just dropped everything and went straight home,” he said. “It was a really hard flight.”
That was last August. It marked the beginning of a difficult stretch for the talented 22-year-old freestyle skier, who mourned his father, then struggled to find the podium in competitions, barely managed to even make the Olympic team and on Thursday became perhaps the most unlikely American gold medalist to emerge from these Sochi Olympics.
“It’s been a long journey,” Christensen said.
On a U.S. Olympic team chock full of stars, Christensen didn’t even have a Wikipedia page one week ago. After a dizzying array of twists and flips, he now has an Olympic gold medal.
“I wish he was here,” Christensen said of his father, “and I hope he’s looking down and smiling. I did it for him.”
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
Christensen was the most surprising component of an all-red-white-and-blue podium at Thursday’s slopestyle competition. The American men swept the competition in exciting fashion as Gus Kenworthy took silver and Nick Goepper won bronze. It marked only the third time in Winter Games history the Americans have finished 1-2-3 in any event.
The dominant performance again showcased how Team USA is capitalizing on the sports making their debut on the Winter Olympics menu. A total of 12 new events were added at these Sochi Games, and the United States has netted seven medals out of the new competitions thus far. Three of the first four American golds, plus a silver, have come on the slopestyle course, where competitors try to impress judges by performing a series of tricks off the rails and jumps.
Skogen Sprang, the U.S. ski slopestyle coach, knew he had a talented men’s team but said he never could’ve predicted a medals sweep
“Was hoping definitely for one. Had my fingers crossed for two,” he said. “Three is pretty much off the charts.”
And if anyone was trying to pinpoint which three, who would’ve guessed Christensen? His genial, easy-going personality seemed to stand out more than his skills on the course.
“If he had a character flaw, it’s that he’s too nice,” said Kenworthy, a good friend for the past 10 years. “He’s kind of a pushover sometimes. He’s such a good guy.”
Christensen couldn’t have reached the podium this season enough to merit much Olympic consideration. But after winning a Grand Prix qualifying event last month, he was awarded a discretionary roster spot on the team and given one of the last tickets to Russia. He was added so late that his mother didn’t book her flight from Utah until just three days before the Opening Ceremonies.
The sixth-place finisher at the Winter X Games, Christensen was overshadowed in Sochi by his own talented teammates. But the Olympics provide a blank slate and past performances no longer matter. With that in mind, Christensen put together the run of his life Thursday when he took his first pass through the slopestyle course, nailing the rails, contorting his body on the jumps — and doing it all so inspired, so impeccable.
“I think he was thinking of his father the whole time,” Debbie said later.
Christensen raised his hands when he reached the bottom of the hill and knew what he had done. The judges awarded him a score of 95.80. The other 11 freestyle skiers in the finals had a chance to top it, but none could.
Even after it was all over, Christensen’s mother said she could barely breathe and described the moment as “surreal.”
“I can’t quite believe it yet,” said Debbie, a Park City travel agent.
She knows exactly for whom her son was skiing Thursday. JD Christensen was drawn to Utah by the ski slopes more than 40 years ago and worked as a painting contractor. He struggled through his last summer with a congenital heart problem, his wife said, and his two sons tried to return the support the father had given them for so many years.
“Things just started to all break down,” Debbie said. “He hung in there a long time. He was very supportive of both of our boys. He tried to teach them to be gentlemen.”
Christensen returned to the slopes and was even more determined to reach Sochi — a tribute to a father who first put him on skis and whose encouragement never wavered.
“He’d be very proud,” Debbie said of her late husband. “He’s up there smiling.”