Updated: February 9, 2014 at 4:56 pm
SOCHI, Russia -When casting a movie about exotic snowboarding, Sage Kotsenburg must be in the running for your leading man.
His blond hair hangs to his shoulders. He says "stoked" almost as much as he says "and" and "the." He employs "sick" as his favored compliment. He's improvisational to the extreme with no use for such tired adult ideas as planning. And he's a gold medal winner.
Kotsenburg, 20, surprised everyone, including himself, by winning the initial slopestyle Olympic competition. His "Holy Crail" routine, in which he performed a convincing imitation of a helicopter while soaring through 4+ rotations, impressed judges and propelled him to the flower ceremony, where he rejoiced while clutching the American flag.
As Kotsenburg stood in the Caucasus Mountains 5 minutes before his run, he still had not determined the details of his routine.
"That's kind of what I'm all about," Kotsenburg said proudly. "Kind of being random."
For days, the attention directed toward Saturday's final had been negative. Shaun White, the sport's lead celebrity, withdrew after suffering an injured wrist in a practice run, leading to speculation about the safety of the course and draining the finals of star power.
White's departure transformed from negative to positive, though. It gave the remainder of the competition the chance to shine in his absence.
"In the halfpipe, Shaun is way ahead of everybody else," said Canada's Maxence Parrot, who finished fourth. "In slopestyle, we are all equal. That's what makes it fun because you never know who is going to win."
This first Olympic competition featured a party atmosphere with a packed crowd and loud music, including "Already Gone" by the Eagles and "Black Betty" by Ram Jam. The event was a hit with virtually everyone on the slope. Except, maybe, the competitors. The snowboarders, with the notable exception of Kotsenburg, questioned the judging. Kotsenburg arrived in Sochi as a second-tier competitor. Sure, he won an Olympic qualifying event in January, but his previous victory had been when he was 11 years old.
"I had a megadrought there for a minute," Kotsenburg said, somehow making complete sense at the same time he was sounding nonsensical.
Many of the competitors openly pined for the X Games, held annually in Aspen. At X Games slopestyle events, the snowboarders are given three runs in the finals. At the Olympics, only two runs are offered. The X Games feature judging more readily understood by the snowboarders. The Olympic judging mystified the competitors.
Still, the competitors seemed to enjoy a rollicking good time. They hugged and slammed hands and shouted together after successful runs. "We're not like enemies, you know," Kotsenburg said. "We love each other, and it's sick, you know."
We know, Sage. We know.
The competitors were happy to expose their sport for a massive new audience. The X Games audience is intense yet limited. The following includes the cultlike devotees of extreme skiing and few others. The Olympic audience is limitless. There's the potential of a vast new array of fans, who might start saying "sick" and "stoked" in every sentence.
"The whole world," Parrot said with a laugh. "Face it, 99 percent of people don't even know what slopestyle means."
The number in the know jumped Saturday after a brotherly, spirited competition. Slopestyle arrived at the Big Daddy of sports competition, and it was an impressive debut. Even if many of these elite, exotic snowboarders were not impressed by the Olympics.