The far left rail.
The most important moment in Sage Kotsenburg's career began on the far left rail of the Slopestyle course at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Kotsenburg noticed that no one else was hitting the left rail in their runs, so he changed course in his run and jumped far out, spinning into a switch 270 onto the rail.
Kotsenburg then put a half cab and a backside 540 on the parallel half rails. He did another half cab up the third feature, the butter box, and threw a layback slide on fourth rail, which he then did a 180 out of, literally for kicks.
“It was something fun, creative,” Kotsenburg says during an interview before the Big Air event being held in Fenway Park. “Nobody does layback slides in competition.”
His three perfectly executed jumps, the signature cab double 1260 “Holy Crail,” front side 1080 Rocket Air off the toes and backside 1620 Japan Air were thrown in representation of Kotsenburg's three pillars of snowboarding. The Holy Crail is pure style. The 1080 Rocket Air off the toes is a relic of the past; snowboarders began to favor throwing tricks off of their heels some 15 years ago. That’s your creativity. The 1620 Japan Air is the technical trick the judges need to see in order to award a high score.
It’s all come together for Sage Kotsenburg one time. When it mattered most, he was able to win a gold medal riding his way, with style infused in every movement, yet not as much as he’d like. In a snowboarding landscape that has been known to favor technicality but has recently paid more attention to style, Kotsenburg stands as style’s most prominent supporter in the snowboarding world.
After the competition, Head Olympic Slopestyle judge Brandon Wong showed Kotsenburg a list of Slopestlye runs written out. The grabs were not included, but the complete rail and jump logs were present. Wong asked Sage what he saw in common with the runs. The answer: a lot.
“The rail lines and the jumps in the runs he showed me we all really similar,” Kotsenburg says. “Except mine. He told me that my rail line and my unique trick selection was the reason that I won.”
Multiple riders, including Kotsenburg, criticized Wong during the Olympic qualifiers of the Slopestlye competition for inconsistent scoring on their runs. But Wong was quoted in Transworld Snowboarding defending himself.
“Riding was at such a high level today. With the riders all throwing down, we have to break down all the little things to separate them—hand touches, instabilities, trick difficulty on the rails and jumps," Wong says. "We compare an entire run to another entire run.”
The Sochi Winter Olympics stand as the biggest victory for snowboarding in its battle for supremacy against technical riding, though Kotsenburg would prefer not to look at the relationship between the two in conflict. There was a time when Sage was on the same technical track that Mark McMorris, Stale Sandbech and Max Parrot have taken to stardom.
“When me, Mark and Stale started doing good, we were 16 years old. Back then I was trying to do as many spins as I could too,” Kotsenburg says. “The spotlight was on us and the judges were rewarding spins. Then you were stoked because they were giving you high scores. But after a point, I had to stop and ask myself what I was doing.”
That point was actually two points. The first was when a 17-year-old Kotsenburg landed the first doublecork 1440, four spins and two flips, in competition. At the time, Sage thought it was the coolest thing ever. Then, he saw it on film.
“It looked terrible. I look back it and I can’t even believe it was me doing it,” Kotsenburg says. “We need people to push the sport in those ways, but it always has to come back to realizing what you’re doing and trying to make it look good along the way.”
Eighteen months after that, during a U.S. Snowboarding training camp in Mammouth, Calif., Kotsenburg was throwing himself around trying to master the triplecork, and getting frustrated. He didn’t like how he felt throwing them and he liked the way he looked on film even less. U.S. coach Bill Enos gave Sage some of the best advice of his life when he told him to take it down a notch and try some grabs to have fun for the day. Kotsenburg started playing with 720s, 900s, 1080s and 1260s. He threw in a doublecork, and did everything with grab.
“Nobody was saying how cool it was when I was attempting the triple but when I started doing a doublecork 12 with a rocket air, putting both hands on the nose, everyone was freaking out,” Kotsenburg says. “I couldn’t process it at first. I had no idea what I was doing. But it was good, I knew that immediately.”
The Olympic victory was a year and a half after that day, but since then Kotsenburg hasn’t done well consistently on the other big stages of event snowboarding. He has one bronze in Big Air and one silver in Slopestyle from the 2011 and 2012 X Games respectively, but hasn’t made the podium there since.
“It’s harder at events to show your creativity,” Kotsenburg says. “The stages are perfect, but really flow one way, there aren’t many options. The course was better for that this year though I have to say.”
The more stylistic course didn’t help Kotsenburg at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen; he finished tenth with a high score of 33 out of 100. The Big Air event at Fenway is Kotsenburg's last event of the season, after which he will return to shooting street snowboarding in Japan with Icelandic snowboarder Halldór Helgason. Kotsenburg's first introduction to snowboarding was through snowboarding films, and he says that is where his heart and soul lies to this day.
“I didn’t start watching X Games and other event riding until I was little older than when I started watching films," says Kotsenburg. "I locked in once I did, but my heart is in movies, building features, riding backcountry, riding down mountain faces. That’s my snowboarding.”
Kotsenburg has desired X Games gold since he began watching the competition as a boy, but says he gives it two or three more attempts at it before he calls it an event career and devotes himself totally to film. Out of a desire to help shape the direction of snowboarding, Kotsenberg developed a proposal for the format of the inaugural Olympic Big Air event in the 2018 winter games.
He suggested a three-jump format where two jumps would count and the third would be a do-over of the lower of the first two scores. Each jump would be scored differently. One is the traditional technical trick, but the other is a rider’s wildest variation on a high difficulty but not spin-laden trick. Creativity would be the deciding factor on the second.
“All those guys, Mark, Max, Stale, Sven, they have the tricks,” Kotsenburg says. “They can do the craziest stuff with lower spins. It just doesn’t get rewarded. But if it did, it’d be so cool to watch them rip.”
Kotsenburg's proposal was too late for the 2018 Olympics, but he spoke with several judges and athletes and said it was received very well among them. Kotsenburg is still in contact with judges about how Big Air runs will be graded.
Kotsenburg's style of riding may never truly mesh with event riding. Everything about him seems like he has one foot on the film side of the industry already. There’s nothing wrong with that. The event world will enjoy him while his time lasts, and then in order to be the first Olympic Slopestyle gold medalist, you’ll have to catch his film.