By Lindsay H. Jones, USA TODAY
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Joss Christensen was the last men's slopestyle skier selected for the U.S. Olympic team, and even after winning the final qualifying event in Park City last month, his inclusion on the team was a controversial one as he was selected over several worthy American skiers.
Yet all Christensen did when he arrived in Sochi was become the most dominant skier from the time practices began last week through his victory lap second run in Thursday's finals of the inaugural ski slopestyle competition. Christensen posted three of the top four scores of the day to lead an American sweep of the medals.
Christensen, a 22-year-old from Park City, scored 95.80 to win gold. Teammates Gus Kenworthy (93.6) and Nick Goepper (92.4) took silver and bronze respectively at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. It was the first American sweep at a Winter Games since the U.S. won three medals in men's snowboard halfpipe at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
Christensen, a discretionary pick on the U.S. team, posted the highest score on his first run in finals, landing a switch triple 1440 jump, a trick he only learned and then decided to insert into his run two days ago during practice.
"I knew once I learned it I had to put it in my run if I wanted a chance to make it on the podium," Christensen said.
Christensen's dominant day culminates what has been a difficult season for the skier, whose father, J.D., died in August. Christensen learned of his father's death after landing in New Zealand, where he was supposed to start his season.
"I hope I made my father proud," Christensen said. "He had been supporting me since day one, through all the injuries I had, which I know scare parents a lot. He always supported me and never said stop. I wish he was here, but I hope he's looking down and smiling."
Christensen was overshadowed in the leadup to the Olympics by teammates Goepper and Kenworthy, each of whom landed that elusive triple jump at the X Games in Aspen last month. But within the U.S. team once here in Sochi, the skiers and coaches considered Christensen to be the favorite, based on the way he was performing in practice.
After watching Christensen's two qualifying runs Thursday morning, teammate Bobby Brown predicted that Christensen would be "unbeatable" in the final.
Brown was right, as Christensen was basically competing to top his own previous high score in each progressive round, even as Kenworthy and Goepper each landed the triple corks in their medal-winning runs.
What made Christensen stand apart was the creativity on the upper rail section of the course, a variety of grabs during his jumps and spins to go along with the fancy new triple - a jump in which he takes off backwards, flips three times while completing four full rotations.
"He's pretty much landed it every time, and he's got really good rotation and style," U.S. freeskiing coach Skogen Sprang said. "I think he was kind of the rider's favorite today, just based on the practices."
Skiers shed layers of clothing throughout the day as temperatures on the mountain were close to 50 degrees. Many said the course was ideal despite the warm weather, with the softer snow easing falls but not hampering speed. American skiers opted for long hoodies instead of parkas, and by the finals, Brown had even ditched that, opting to compete in just a T-shirt - the first time he's done that in a major competition.
Many of the other American skiers and snowboarders crowded the finish area to watch Team USA's first sweep of this Games, including snowboarding slopestyle gold medalist Jamie Anderson and ski halfpipe competitors Aaron Blunck and Torrin Yater-Wallace, as well as a surprisingly pro-American crowd.
"I mean it's been incredible to showcase our sport to the world," Kenworthy said. "We have an awesome course, beautiful weather and it was one of the best slopestyle competitions we've ever had. I really couldn't be prouder."
Besides the three medalists, Brown also made the final and finished ninth. That Christensen, whom Sprang admitted was right on the bubble to make the team until just a few weeks ago, wound up winning was validation not just for the decision to bring him, but also an emphatic statement for the health of the freeski program.
"I mean, it's freaking amazing. I'm still kind of in shock. You don't really talk about that before. The chance was there, but you don't really expect it to happen. You can't expect it to happen," Sprang said. "I knew they all had a chance to medal, whether it was one of them, or two of them, or three of them, you just do what you can to get them all ready. They did their jobs, stomped their runs, and crushed it. I'm stoked for all of them."
Slopestyle skiing and snowboarding made their Winter Games debut here. American Devin Logan won silver in the women's event Tuesday. The U.S. also won the gold medals in the snowboard slopestyle events.