SOCHI, Russia - Eight American fans from Buffalo, N.Y., bellowed the national anthem while three American slopestyle skiers celebrated a medal sweep.
Gold medalist Joss Christensen and silver medalist Gus Kenworthy and bronze medalist Nick Goepper huddled close together. All were smiling. All were draped in American flags.
They were celebrating their day, but also celebrating a more lingering triumph.
Their sport has fully arrived on the world stage.
“The greatest display of free skiing in history,” Goepper said. “The best day for free skiing ever.”
The fans from Buffalo arrived at “and the home of the brave” and Goepper smiled, thinking of the medal ceremony that awaited him.
“I’ll be hearing that song again in a few hours,” he said.
This was more than an American party. The Olympics offer legitimacy to a sport and this recognition lifts spirits from top to bottom. Those who trot down the lanes in Thursday night bowling leagues would rejoice if their sport received elevation to Olympic status. Wrestlers competing in grade-school tournaments worried a year ago when their sport seemed in peril of a forced departure from the Olympics.
Exotic ski competition is a young sport, but it’s easy to see how it seizes the imagination of even those who have never skied. On this gloriously sunny day in the Caucuses Mountains, brave skiers roared down the slopes at astounding speeds, taking breaks for acrobatic flights. It was great theater.
Don’t worry. This sport isn’t going anywhere. Extreme skiing is dangerous, but it’s an extremely safe bet to remain an Olympic sport.
It was a peaceful day, too. Nobody was arguing about the medalists. The Americans placed four skiers in the finals, including Englewood’s Bobby Brown, and then utterly dominated the competition.
On Goepper’s first run, he delivered a dazzling 92.4.
“The run of my life,” he said.
But Kenworthy topped Goepper with a 93.6 run.
“It was overwhelming, knowing it was the best run of my life,” Gus said.
Christensen toppled both of his friends. His run was not as outwardly showy and failed to draw as many gasps from the audience.
But it was close to flawless, and his switch triple jump, which he started backward, clinched his gold.
“I learned that trick two or three days ago,” Christensen said. “And I knew once I learned it I had to put it into my run if I wanted to win.”
Olympic teammate Torin Yater-Wallace watched in admiration as Christensen danced down the mountain. Yater-Wallace, who lives in Basalt, could tell a big score was on its way.
“It was the smoothest run,” Yater-Wallace said. “Joss’s run was pretty much no mistakes, as smooth as possible and super technical also. Everything you need for a big score. “
When Christensen arrived at the bottom of the hill, he was met by a band of skiing brothers. After strong runs by any skier from any country, a small party starts at the bottom of the slope. There’s hugging and shouting and leaping up and down.
“I could break down in tears for Joss,” Great Britain slopestyle competitor James Woods said. “We’re all mates here. There is absolutely no doubt about it.”
I don’t doubt Woods words. And I don’t doubt the future of his sport.
Christensen, Kenworthy and Goepper ran away, still clinging to their flags, still laughing about a fantastic day in the snow and the sun. They had to hurry to their medal ceremony.
Meanwhile, that joyous singing group from Buffalo began its fifth go-round of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”