SOCHI -- They were a study in contrasts, standing on the bottom and top rungs of the podium.
Clean-shaven, apple-cheeked Mark McMorris, the pride of Regina, Saskatchewan, had played through pain to take the bronze in this, the first-ever Olympic slopestyle event.
Standing beside and slightly above him, an armed draped around the Canadian’s shoulder, stood the surprise gold medalist. Sage Kotsenburg’s face was frozen in a grin, his perma-stubble and shoulder-length hair evoking Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
Kotsenburg, 20, is far more articulate than Spicoli, the stoner played by Sean Penn. Usually.
A happy-go-lucky and ridiculously talented athlete out of Park City, Utah, he was uncharacteristically deflated after Thursday’s qualifiers. He’d spent a lot of time preparing some never-before-seen combos -- his “cab-double-twelve Japan,” his “front-10-off-the-toes-with-nose-grab” -- and the judges hadn’t rewarded him. He wasn’t angry so much as his feelings were hurt. It was as if he’d spent a long time preparing a delicious meal garnished with exotic spices, and the judges had bolted their food and rushed out the door.
“The tricks people have been doing for two or three years are rewarded more than the new stuff,” he lamented, at the bottom of the slopestyle course. “We’re not robots, but they like to see robotic tricks.”
The strangest thing happened Saturday, yet another sun-kissed, postcard afternoon here in the western Caucasus. It was as if the judges actually heard Kotsenburg.
The good news following Thursday’s qualifiers was that no one was eliminated -- with the obvious exception of Shaun White, who’d controversially, and awkwardly, removed himself from the competition the night before.
The bad news for Kotsenburg was that he was one of 21 semifinalists scratching and clawing for four spots in the finals. (Eight riders from the qualifiers had already advanced directly to the finals.) And yet, as he stood at the top of the course before dropping in for his second semifinal run, Kotsenburg showed all the stress of a man in line to buy a scratch card at a convenience store.
“I was like, I’m not gonna let a judge change how I snowboard,” Kotsenburg said. “I’m not gonna succumb to just doing, like, normal stuff … ‘cause I think that’s whack.”
He embellished that run with several signature grabs, including an exotic aerial that goes by the inspired name of “the Holy Crail.” Which is a … Well, let him tell you:
“The Holy Crail is trick I invented a couple months ago,” he explains, excitedly. “It’s a Japan grab with a Crail grab.” Observing the blank looks on the faces of his listeners, he elaborates: “Japan is mute, tweaked behind your back, Crail is backhand onto the nose. So, mix ‘em up together you get Holy Crail.”
And what could be clearer than that?
This much was very clear at the slopestyle venue. The judges who had ignored Kotsenburg’s peerless “steez” -- a contraction of style and ease -- two days earlier, had radically changed their strike zone come Saturday. Suddenly, they were much more taken with style -- how flawlessly and originally riders executed their tricks -- than they were with spinning for the sake of spinning.
That worked in Kotsenberg’s favor but badly hurt pre-event favorites McMorris and fellow Canadian Max Parrot, who came into the Olympics on a tear, having landed two double corked flips and a pair of triples in his gold-medal-winning run at the X Games.
After cruising into the final with a 90.50 run, Kotsenburg had some lunch and called his brother, Blaze, a spray paint artist whose work -- mountains with a waterfall -- adorns Sage’s board.
Sage had never busted out a backside Japan 1620 in a competition before. Check that -- he’d never attempted one before. Period. But after watching video of his semifinal run and talking to his brother and coaches, he concluded that he had time to sneak in an extra rotation. The trick he’d never thrown, he would now throw in the Olympic finals.
He stuck it clean. The judges, suddenly his BFFs, rewarded him with a 93.5 that held up for the rest of that round and -- the wait was excruciating for Kotsenburg -- all of the second. One by one, guys who’ve beaten him regularly over the last few years found the stage, and the moment, too big.
Not McMorris, who ignored the pain in the rib he cracked in the X Games two weeks earlier to throw down a sensational second run: a pair of triple corks bookending a frontside 10 double cork, all gigantic, all landings stomped. When his score didn’t even break 90 -- his 89.25 was good for bronze -- you knew nobody was going to beat Sage K.
What the judges had valued Thursday had been dramatically devalued two days later. Until Saturday, triple corks had been the holy grail in this sport. The new holy grail, it seems, is the Holy Crail. Now Parrot was dumbing his final run down, substituting a double for a triple because the judges seemed to be penalizing them.
Olle Danielson, the director of Sweden’s snowboarding squad, spoke for many when he said, diplomatically: “What happened today, it’s hard for me to grasp, actually. I’m definitely confused.”
Parrot and McMorris could not have been more gracious. While he believed his final run, which included a 1620 triple cork -- Kotsenburg’s 1620 was just a double -- would vault him into first place (it was only good for fifth), Parrot gave the American props.
“I’m really happy for Sage,” he said. “He’s doing tricks different from the others … he’s doing things special that we don’t do. He’s got his own personal style, and I’m happy that he showed that to the whole world. I think his style is pretty rad.”
Rad carried the day at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. “It’s pretty sick to see some weird creative stuff get rewarded,” exulted Kotsenburg.
The squeaky wheel got the gold.