The first American hero of the 2014 Winter Olympics is the goofy and charming Sage Kotsenburg of Park City, who won the first-ever slopestyle snowboarding competition. Slopestyle is acrobatic snowboarding in which riders fly off vertical ramps to reach for what their imagination and bodies can do. To quote Sage, "It's sick."
This is a dude who spent the night before his final competition eating chocolate, onion rings, and chips. He wasn't training, or stressing, he was "chilling really hard." Then he fell asleep watching the movie Fight Club.
He's the Jeff Spicoli of sports, the surfing slacker from the 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As Spicoli said, "All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine." All Kotsenburg needs are some rails and ramps.
The 20-year-old Kotsenburg brought to the Olympics the "What the hell, bro" attitude of snowboarding in which bad is good and sick is excellent. He's buttery, corked and chillaxed. His routine included a move he called "The Holy Crail," which requires reaching behind his back to grab the board with one hand while hold the tip with the other. He said, "I kind of do random stuff all the time, never make a plan up."
He's arrived just in time for the humorless $50-billion event known as the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where the government kills stray dogs in case Alexander Potemkin might show up for an inspection. The socialist realist spectacle of the opening ceremony could have been produced by the old Soviet Union, if only it had the money. Vladimir Putin presided with a look on his face that suggested he was thinking about putting Pussy Riot back in prison, while Kotsenburg was back in his room kicking back.
Kotsenburg and the boarding crew bring needed relief to a sports festival where athletes arrive with teams of coaches, trainers and nutritionists whose jobs are to help their clients split hundredths of points. Maybe they're all having fun, but a lot of the time, it doesn't look like it. At the skating rink analysts wring their hands over every flaw, sucking the joy out of otherwise beautiful performances. "Ohhhh!! A little forward on the toe there. Triple loop. Trouble on the landing!! Too bad." The judges, who already know every twist of the skaters' routines, rule with the solemnity of the Inquisition. Not to mention that ice skating is sometimes as corrupt as all Mother Russia.
The men's hockey players are hardened professionals, just in town to punch their Olympic ticket. The skiers, speed skaters and sliders have teams of engineers doing airflow tests over their aerodynamic jumpsuits. Under Armour and Lockheed have joined forces for Team USA. Sleds are designed by computer and made of space-age materials. The skiers take off their skis the moment they're finished so television viewers can see the brand name on the bottom. They aren't there to win so much as to service their endorsement deals.
Over at the snow park, the boarders arrive with long hair and outfits that look like a sack of potatoes, their pants barely concealing a plumber's crack. If their mothers were at the top of the course they'd be asking, "Are you really going out looking like that?"
Snowboarding was added to the Olympics in 1998 at Nagano and the mountain sports lost their stiff Austrian posture. One of the first winners of gold in snowboarding briefly had his medal stripped by the International Olympic Committee after he tested positive for marijuana. Dude, you mean they're supposed to do this event straight?
Snowboarders are the rebels of winter sports. They are often obnoxious and dangerous to be around on a ski hill. They don't care about their own safety, let alone yours, but they have an infectious sense of freedom. Unfettered on a board, they can fly, spin, faceplant and laugh. All they want is to be cuttin' the pow pow on a bluebird day. Kotsenburg told NBC's Bob Costas, "There's not a right way to do anything, it's just the way you do it."
The fun-seeking Kotsenburg ended up in Sochi tweeting, "Whoa how random is this I made the finals at the Olympics!!!" He didn't decide on his final trick until three minutes before his final run. "It's kind of what I'm all about," he said. He called his brother asking advice and his brother said, you've got nothing to lose, it's the Olympics.
That's when the Spicoli of snowboarding dropped in and did a cab 270 to switch, half-cab on back 540 off flat down, half-cab layback slide off the cannon back 180 out, cab double cork 1260 Holy Crail, frontside 1080 off the toes rocket air. He finished with a trick he'd never done in his life, a "Back 1620 Japan." You don't have to understand what it is to love it.
Inverted and twisting high over the course, Kotsenburg was boned out and crust-bustin'. At a press conference he innocently and enthusiastically said he was "totally stoked" about winning gold. "Being on the first podium in slopestyle is so insane," he told Costas. "It was sick, man, I can't even explain how cool it was." That doesn't translate well into Russian or the language of the Olympics, but they should give it a try.