No Shaun White? Not a problem. Team USA didn’t miss a beat.
In White's absence, 20-year-old American Sage Kotsenburg, the wild-haired underdog who embraces surf lingo and shuns conformity, performed the run of his life to win the snowboarding slopestyle gold medal in the event’s Olympic debut.
To say that Kotsenburg wasn’t the favorite headed into this event would be an understatement. He made the Olympic team at the last minute by winning the slopestyle qualifier at the Mammoth Grand Prix in January. According to XGames.com, it was his first outright win in any event since he was 11 years old.
Even after that breakthrough victory, Kotsenburg only finished 15th in the X Games last month, and he was in eighth place in his heat after his qualifying run Thursday in Sochi. That meant he didn’t get a direct entry into the final and had to compete in the semifinals Saturday to even make the medal round.
But in the semifinals, he began to find his form. He nailed his second run and surprised even himself by becoming the only American man in the slopestyle final.
In the final, all eyes were on the outspoken Canadian duo of Max Parrot and Mark McMorris. Parrot won the gold medal in the X Games, and McMorris was considered the favorite in the event before he broke a rib last month. Norwegian Stale Sandbech was also a medal favorite.
Kotsenburg was so under the radar that even after he put down a phenomenal first run, scoring a 93.50, one of the favorites was expected to pass him. But despite the fact that McMorris and Sandbech both put down highly technical runs, Kotsenburg was crowned the king of the day, while Sandbech took silver and McMorris took bronze.
Score one for the laid-back guys.
In the mixed zone between the semifinals and final, Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times reports that Kotsenburg told the press that he was not feeling the pressure at all:
I really want to medal just as much as the next guy, but my attitude in the run, if I land, that’s cool. If not, I need to try harder obviously. That’s just how I snowboard.
I’m super mellow, laid-back. I’m not like the normal guy that goes in the gym and trains. I haven’t been in the gym since September.
His "whatever" attitude is in stark contrast to White, who is undeniably the face of the sport. White, who withdrew from the slopestyle at the last minute to focus on halfpipe, makes no qualms about his ambitions and puts winning above everything else. This attitude, combined with his strong affinity for all things corporate, has made him an outcast in the skating community.
Kotsenburg is exactly the opposite. With speech littered with "likes" and "stoked," there's absolutely nothing polished about him. His snowboarding, which is heavy on passion, fun and style, and low on the triple corks that have been the talk of slopestyle over the past couple of years, also makes him stand out.
While most of his competitors try to custom-make their slopestyle runs to impress the judges, Kotsenburg refuses to go that route.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reports that in the lead-up to the Olympics, he said, "I'd rather not conform to making the judges happy."
But that doesn't mean that he doesn't have tricks up his sleeve. In fact, Kotsenburg debuted an impressive and stylish spin move off of the second ramp in his gold medal-winning run.
XGames.com reports that he'd never even tried it before:
He calls [the new trick] the "Holy Crail," a move that makes it appear as if he's spinning like a top as he rotates 4½ times, grabbing the board behind his back in the process.
"I'd never even tried it before, literally," Kotsenburg said. "Never ever tried it before in my life."
Kotsenburg's attitude and approach to snowboarding make him extremely popular amongst his competitors. He invited podium mates and friends Sandbech and McMorris to his top pedestal during the medal ceremony, a well-respected gesture in the snowboarding world, which seems to value friendship and fun more than most Olympic sports.
All of his teammates and competitors were quick to tweet out their congratulations, which was telling. While many—such as McMorris, per David Ebner of the Globe and Mail—have said that White is not the guy they want representing their sport, it's clear that a lot of them view Kotsenburg as the perfect poster boy.
There's no telling if he'll able to launch this gold medal into anything close to the dominating career that White has had. Due to the fact that he was a surprise winner, it seems unlikely. It's also doubtful that this medal will change Kotsenburg, who values his own path above all else.
For now, he will go down in history as the first Olympic champion of snowboarding slopestyle and the first gold medalist of the Sochi games.
Not bad for a guy who hasn't been to the gym since September.