BEIJING — Birk Ruud of Norway spun away with a gold medal in the Olympics’ first men’s freestyle skiing big air event Wednesday, re-emerging as a leader in the extreme sport after he lost his father to cancer and injured his knee.
Ruud’s win was powered by a 1980-degree jump — 5½ rotations — that no competitor could match.
Colby Stevenson, who was born in Portsmouth, N.H., came closest, earning the silver medal.
The 24-year-old Stevenson has his own inspirational story.
In 2016, he had a near-fatal car accident in the middle of the night in rural Idaho while returning from a skiing event. He sustained 30 fractures to his skull and spent three days in an induced coma.
His slow recovery delayed the prime of his career, but Stevenson returned and became one of the top freeskiers of the past couple of seasons, a contender in both big air and slopestyle.
On Wednesday, where Eileen Gu had won the women’s gold a day earlier in the same event, Stevenson landed a 1620 and an 1800, two of the highest-scoring tricks in the contest. But the combination of scores left him just short of Ruud.
Sweden’s Henrik Harlaut won bronze at Big Air Shougang — a shuttered steel mill that now hosts the world’s only permanent big air jump.
Ruud has two Winter X Games big air gold medals and four World Cup wins, but only one since 2019. The 21-year-old’s father, Øivind, died of cancer last April, and Ruud has said the loss pulled his mind away from competitive skiing.
His efforts to ramp up for Beijing were interrupted by a knee injury nine weeks ago, and he skipped last month’s Winter X Games to play it safe amid the coronavirus.
The rust came off quickly.
Ruud carved out a commanding lead in his first two runs, coming in backward for a switch triple cork 1980 — three off-axis flips with 5½ rotations — then tumbling forward for a double cork bio 1800.
Alex Hall was Ruud's toughest competitor — the American became the first to land a 2160 at the Winter X Games last month. Hall tried to spin out only the second-ever 2160 in the final round but crashed out for an eighth-place finish.
Ruud went last in the final round with his spot atop the podium already secured. He grabbed a Norwegian flag and held it in his left hand for his final trick, a no-pressure bio 1440. He unraveled the flag and waved it behind him after landing.
Ruud ripped off his gloves to display the nails he had painted by an artist in the Olympic Village. Flashy and funny, he's a favorite among fans for his hijinks on social media, like the time he skateboarded around disguised as an old man, bewildering an unassuming crowd.
The men have been rapidly pushing the boundaries in this high-flying sport. When Oliwer Magnusson on his final run won X Games gold in 2021, his best trick was a switch triple cork 1800 — coming into the jump backward, making five full rotations while doing three off-axis flips.
A year later, five of the Olympics’ 12 finalists threw down a similar trick in the first round. Magnusson started with a double cork 1980 and ranked only fourth — Ruud led with 95.75 points after his 1980.
Magnusson momentarily put himself in medal position with a switch double cork 1800 in the final round before Harlaut bumped him out for bronze.
The 30-year-old Harlaut is a favorite among his younger rivals, a hero in the sport for his style, if not his technical skills. The six-time X Games big air gold medalist used the flex of his ski to pop off the jump for a Nosebutter triple cork 1620 on his final jump, then got a huge hug from the 21-year-old Magnusson.