KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — The kid they call "second-run Sage" didn’t waste time putting down the run of his life.
Sage Kotsenburg tamed the treacherous slopestyle course at the Extreme Park on Saturday, grabbing the first gold medal of the Sochi Olympics. And he did it with a run that left the 20-year-old American who talks like a surfer and rides like a purist momentarily stunned in disbelief.
Kotsenburg’s soulful first run in the finals ended with a score of 93.50 that held up over the next 30 minutes as the rest of the field’s dozen riders failed to catch the laid-back Couer d’Alene, Idaho, native, who peppers his interviews with "whoas" and "gnarly" and often refers to himself as "your boy."
One that’s now an Olympic champion.
Staale Sandbech of Norway grabbed silver while Canadian Mark McMorris, who nearly missed the finals because of a broken rib, surged to bronze as slopestyle provided an electric Olympic debut.
While the course that chased teammate Shaun White to the apparent safety of the halfpipe took out its fair share of riders, Kotsenburg kept his cool in the finals.
Then again, that’s just his way.
His blonde hair flapping from under his helmet as he soared through the sun-splashed Caucasus Mountains, Kotsenburg looked as if he were cruising down the hill with his buddies even as he soared off ramps that are the equivalent of leaping out of three three-story buildings in the span of 15 seconds.
In a sport built on signature moments as much as it is built on triumphs, Kotsenburg provided both when he leapt off the second ramp, unveiling a new trick that impressed the judges and drew oohs from the packed stands.
He calls it the "Holy Crail," a move that makes it appear as if he’s spinning like a top as he rotates 4 times, grabbing the board behind his back in the process.
"I’d never even tried it before, literally," Kotsenburg said. "Never ever tried it before in my life."
Not that it stopped him as he put to bed the notion of being everybody’s favorite runner-up by taking the biggest event of his life.
Kotsenburg has spent most of his career on the sport’s second tier. When he captured the final Olympic qualifying event in California last month, it was his first win since he was 11.
"I had a mega drought," he said with a laugh.
The dry run is over, though the momentum from his victory at Mammoth Mountain initially didn’t carry over to Sochi.
Kotsenburg needed to navigate the semifinals early Saturday, putting together a ride that gave him the confidence boost he needed. He placed second in the semifinals then rolled with a medal on the line.
Still, there was drama as he waited out the rest of the 12-man field. He stood off to the side after his second run, a not-quite-as-sharp 83.25, and clapped behind a nervous smile as the rest of the field aimed for his score.
McMorris, slowed by a broken rib, couldn’t quite get there. A gold medal favorite before his injury at X Games last month, McMorris needed to scramble to get through the semifinals and his trip down the hill in the finals was solid but lacked the fireworks necessary to unseat Kotsenburg.
Rather than wear any "armor" to protect his rib cage, McMorris relied on a team of specialists that tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Considering the circumstances, it could have been worse.
"They got me from a broken rib to on my snowboard in the span of nine days," McMorris said. "They kept pushing me and pushing me. It’s been the most draining week in my life."
Sandbech, who went next to last, was nearly flawless. He was so pumped after his second run he belly-flopped onto the ground. His 91.75 wasn’t quite good enough, leaving only Canadian Max Parrot in Kotsenburg’s path to the gold.
Parrot dominated qualifying, posting the best score of the week. He put together a near perfect first run only to sit on the landing of his final jump then wobbled twice on his second run and scraped the ground with his hand after landing his final trick. He dropped his head when his 87.25 popped up on the scoreboard while Kotsenburg raised his arms in triumph to get the U.S. off to a golden start in what should be a competitive race at the medal table.
"I can’t even describe the feeling," Kotsenburg said. "It’s so cool."