USA medal count surges after thrilling slopestyle skiing sweep

The men of slopestyle skiing put team USA back within striking distance of the top of the medal count with a stylish podium sweep in an event that was fun from start to finish.

Andy Wong/AP
Men's ski slopestyle gold medal winner Joss Christensen of the United States (c.) celebrates on the podium with his teammates Gus Kenworthy (l.) and Nicholas Goepper during a flower ceremony at the 2014 Winter Olympics Thursday in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

Good morning, this giant leap up the medal table has been brought to you by the men of USA slopestyle skiing.

Just last night, this august news publication wrote that the Americans were "clinging" to fourth place in the medal table. Now, team USA is surging toward first in the overall count thanks to the first US Winter Olympic medal sweep since the men's halfpipe team in 2002 and only the third US sweep ever. (The other coming in men's figure skating in 1956.)

What a difference a slopestyle event makes.

Along with resurrecting a nation from its impending medalpocalypse, the four men of the US slopestyle team proved that skiing is, in fact, just as cool as snowboarding, and put on a show that surely has NBC doing backflips of their own – though, perhaps not with a tail-grab, like the US men did Thursday.

To put it plainly: that was wicked fun. Can I tell you to watch NBC tonight? Is that journalistically ethical? Who cares. Miss it at your peril.

The best thing about the event from an American perspective, clearly, is that the medal sweep means everyone will watch Joss Christensen win gold, Gus Kenworthy silver, and Nick Goepper bronze.

The best thing about it from a spectator's perspective was that it was a riot no matter who was coming down the hill.

The world has already caught a glimpse of slopestyle with the snowboard competition. But don't be fooled. This was like another universe.

To be sure, the sport has plenty of room to progress. At times, limbs were so tangled in an attempt to become a human Houdini routine in mid-air that athletes resembled a flying briar patch, skis and arms and legs all akimbo in a knot of frenetic motion. 

But that was fun, too.

The slopestyle course is, in essence, designed to be a playground. With the slopesytle skiers, we got to see virtually everything that playground could do, and perhaps some things that should never have been attempted.

Goepper did a pirouetting leap onto the highwall, then flipped off the top of it. Norway's Oystein Braaten at one point actually skied up the side of the highwall, for a moment making it appear as if the earth had changed axes beneath his skis. Several riders took flying leaps over the giant inflatable matryoshka doll because, as mountaineer George Mallory once said, "it was there." Then Swede Henrik Harlaut, after skiing basically the entire run backward, Nordic dreadlocks flying, for all intents and purposes mooned the judges on his final landing, not once but twice.

No word yet on whether that's worth extra style points or a deduction.

It is a sport where Goepper honed his craft on a 300-foot hill in Indiana that had only manmade snow and was open three months a year. St. Mortiz, it is not. Yet he was the one who did the double backflip and, at one point, reversed his feet in mid-air so the left was on the right and the right on the left (intentionally, I might add), and still managed landed whisper-soft on the snow. And he won bronze. 

That was the beauty of the competition. Throughout the Winter Olympics, a sameness can creep into the program. Figure skaters, for all their immaculate beauty, are generally doing programs they've done in competitions all season. Even in the snowboarding events, the tricks can begin to run together, with only the top riders able to differentiate themselves from the middling masses.

But Thursday, every run, whether by a medalist or not, brought its own fascinating and unique brushstrokes. "You can look at any feature differently from anyone else," said Goepper at a media summit in October. "It's almost artistic. The course is the canvas, and the skis are our paintbrush."

He drew a bit of a laugh with that comment in October. But Thursday, he and his teammates' inner Monet drew up three medals and three seats in front of Matt Lauer on the "Today" show, surely.

Score one for the two-plankers.

Since snowboarding made its entry into the Winter Olympics in 1998 – and particularly since the men's halfpipe medal sweep in Salt Lake – snowboarding has been the cool sport. Going down the hill on two pieces of fiberglass was relegated to those Luddites who lacked the vision or the verve to shred on a board. 

Christensen might have something to say about that now. OK, it was no "Holy Crail," which snowboarding slopestyle gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg had never attempted before throwing it into his gold-medal run. But Chistensen had never done the triple cork jump that sealed the gold for him before this week.

"He learned the triple he did on the third jump this week," said USA coach Skogen Sprang. "He has got amazing grabs, and it is tough to make those tricks look stylish sometimes, as there is a lot of flipping and spinning going on. He has always been really good at that."

It is something of a surprise that Christensen is even here. He was added at the last minute ahead of 2013 World Champion Tom Wallisch.

So how did that decision turn out?

"He has answered all the questions about his selection," said Sprang. "What better way to do that?"

In fact, he answered them twice over. His execution was so flawless, his grabs so lacking in the chicken-wing flapping that can plague other skiers, that either of his two runs would have won gold.

Not surprisingly (or undeservedly) the Americans were rather impressed with themselves – and everyone else, for that matter.

"I think today was the best display of skiing we have ever seen in our sport, so I am happy," Goepper said.

We are, too.

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