SOCHI, Russia — The way Sage Kotsenburg figured it, he had about 10 minutes to kill before he had to “drop in” on the most important ride of his life. He was mulling throwing in a trick he had never tried before, and had just enough time to seek a little brotherly advice.
So the freewheeling snowboarder grabbed his Russian phone out of the wax technician’s backpack and rang up older sibling Blaze back in Park City, Utah. So what if it was well past midnight.
“He was super surprised,’’ Kotsenburg said. “He was up watching with his friends. I said, ‘I might try a 1620 Japan.’ He’s like, ‘Really, what? Send it I guess, you’re at the Olympics. Everyone here is stoked. You’ve got this.’ ’’
Message received. Kotsenburg took off and with a combination of moves right out of Twister (“you’re kind of like a pretzel in the air’’), the 20-year-old American stuck the routine of his life and took home the first Olympic gold medal awarded at the Sochi Games, winning the inaugural snowboarding slopestyle event.
“It feels like a dream right now, it’s the craziest thing ever,’’ said Kotsenburg, who had finished 20th (and last) at the 2013 world championships in Quebec. “I didn’t think it would happen, it’s just too much to take in all at once. I’m really stoked. So stoked to be here, representing the USA for sure. Bringing home the gold is just icing on the cake.’’
Let the record show that the winning maneuver, which sounds like something out of the Patriots’ playbook, was a Cab Double Cork 1260 Holy Crail grab. Got it?
“Coming off the last jump, I’m saying, this is going too well, I definitely have to do the 1620 [4½-rotation spin],’’ Kotsenburg said. “It’s coming around perfect. It’s just like the 1260 but a full 360 more. I couldn’t believe coming out of it I landed it first try.
“The favorite part of my run was the Cab Double Cork 1260 Holy Crail; it’s a grab I invented a couple of months ago. It’s kind of like my own flair on the course.”
Kotsenburg, a native of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, finished with a score of 93.5 on that first run, and was never caught. Staale Sandbech of Norway took the silver and Canadian Mark McMorris, competing after recovering from a broken rib he suffered at the X Games in January, earned bronze.
The new champion didn’t have family in attendance, but don’t blame security concerns.
“They stress me out way too much,’’ Kotsenburg acknowledged. “They get stressed at X Games, my mother sits 500 feet away from the bottom, behind a bridge watching. They would not do good here. It’s better for me on my mind because I start freaking out when they’re there.
“I’m so relaxed now and that is when I ride better. I called them immediately afterward when I could and it was the coolest moment ever, hearing their voices.”
The Sochi slopestyle course had come under criticism in recent days for being dangerous, with even the legendary Shaun White, who pulled out of the event, saying it was “a little intimidating.” But Kotsenburg disagreed.
“People were saying it was dangerous and deeming it unsafe and they hadn’t even stepped 2 feet on the course,’’ he said. “I kind of tried to squash that. The jumps are really high here, but we need those big jumps to do the tricks. Making the jumps smaller would have made it more dangerous. But the course is awesome. They did a really good job with it.”
Kotsenburg, who as acknowledged in social media is the spittin’ image in looks and voice to Jeff Spicoli, the gnarly dude from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (“I’m so down with that,’’ he beamed), skipped marching in Friday’s Opening Ceremony so he could rest and be at the top of his game Saturday.
He even prepared in Spicoli-like fashion. “I was eating mad snacks,” he said. “Chocolate. Onion rings. Chips. We were chilling really hard. Then we fell asleep watching ‘Fight Club.’ Getting stoked, you know?
“My mentality isn’t about training or going to the gym. I really just like riding, expressing myself through snowboarding. My riding is a lot different than other people’s; it’s crazy, eccentric. I like doing whatever I want. You have to think outside of the box every once in a while and bring it back to just being creative. That’s where snowboarding started.’’
So while much of the talk about this event centered around White dropping out and opting to concentrate on winning a third straight halfpipe title, it’s Kotsenburg who joined Charlie Jewtraw (1924, men’s 500-meter speedskating), Jack Shea (1932, men’s 500-meter speedskating), and Andi Mead-Lawrence (1952, women’s Alpine giant slalom) as the only American athletes to claim the gold in the first medal event of an Olympic Winter Games.
“Most of the spotlight in snowboarding is on Shaun, but when he dropped out it was cool that people were like, ‘There are these other guys, too.’ I wish he was in it so I could have a shot at him. He is the face of snowboarding, but there are definitely other guys out there besides him,” Kotsenburg said.Scott Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Globethurston