“Olympic sweep,” the 24-year-old American skier Colby Stevenson said to Olympics.com, nodding with a kind of deep satisfaction. “A U.S sweep is a pretty cool way to start off our sport at the Olympics.”
There’s a special kind of grin that spreads over the faces of the American slopestyle freeski team here in Beijing when talk turns to Sochi and 2014. It doesn’t matter if it’s the veteran Nick Goepper, bronze winner in that Sochi podium sweep, or two-time Olympian and rail specialist Alex Hall – or even a debutant like Stevenson.
It was the big-stage Olympic debut of the sport they all love, often a haven for former ski racers who crave more. For skiers who wanted a kind of freedom and creative expansiveness that not even the moguls or the previous generation’s aerials could provide.
When the announcement was made, in 2012, that freeski slopestyle would be added to the Olympic program, Stevenson was barely 15 years old. But young as he was, everything changed that day.
New goal set
“I knew I was going to do it [slopestyle] even if it wasn’t for the Olympics,” said the 24-year-old whose passion for his sport fairly oozes from him – and who’s already won a silver medal here in Beijing in the freeski big air debut at the Shougang Industrial Park. “But that possibility just added a new layer of excitement."
Still just 16 when the qualifiers for the first-ever freeski slopestyle events in Sochi began, Stevenson was competing for a place in that debutant USA team. “I didn’t quite have the level yet of riding to make the team,” said Stevenson, who admits to a bit of a wild streak in his early years on the competition circuit. “But it was thrilling to be a part of the process for the first time.”
And when the first slopestyle event at the Games finally happened – off on the shores of the Black Sea in southern Russia – Stevenson wasn’t sulking at home. Not by a long shot. The teenager was folded into the heart of a tight-knit American freeski community that gathered to cheer the American pioneers who headed to Russia to lay down a firm marker – winning gold, silver and bronze in the inaugural event.
“I got to watch one of my good friends, Joss [Christensen] – a local Park City guy win Olympic gold,” remembered Stevenson, his grin growing as he remembered staying up late to watch the USA’s clean sweep with friends in the gold medal-winner’s house in Utah.
Watching on the gold medallist’s couch
“Yeah, I was actually at Joss’s house, with his roommates in Park City, and when we watched him go it was like three in the morning,” Stevenson added about those historic Games where Gus Kenworthy (silver) and Goepper (bronze) climbed the podium behind Christensen “It was just totally magical and crazy to have someone you know, one of your friends, just taking home the gold medal at the Olympics.
“It was amazing and life-changing. It’s just such a big deal,” Stevenson added with a shake of his head, before continuing: “And now to be on the other side of it…”
An Olympic debut for Stevenson, it should be said, was a longer and harder road than many could ever endure. A truck wreck on a remote highway in Idaho in May of 2016 nearly killed him.
But avoiding that grim and tragic outcome, and the permanent and irreversible brain damage his doctors feared, left him with a new-found sense of gratitude. “I’d never been in such a grateful state in my life,” he said, nodding again. “I’m just so full of love for everything – and the sport.”
The crash left him with a massive scar right in the middle of his forehead. It’s there to this day and a reminder of how quickly it can all go away.
Hard road back
Stevenson worked his way back into competing form for the qualifying route leading to the PyeongChang Games. But he “pushed too hard” and “destroyed his shoulder” – missing out on not only those 2018 Games but the whole of that year’s world cup season.
He admits to a bittersweet feeling watching on TV again as his “buddies threw down” in the Republic of Korea, while he recovered – yet again – from serious injury.
But he used that time to become the skier he is today.
The kind who can invent a trick in the morning and put it to use on a medal-winning run that same afternoon, like he did in the big air competition here in Beijing. His nose butter 1600 with a Japan grab (a first ever seen in competition) wowed the judges and earned Stevenson silver at his first Games.
“When you stop learning new tricks is when you start getting burnt out,” said the man born in New Hampshire but who moved at a young age with his parents to the winter sports playground of Park City. “Every year I just kind of try to step up my stuff.
And it should be said that the big air event isn’t even Stevenson’s top discipline. Far from it. “I’ve never been on a podium for big air,” he said after winning the Olympic silver behind Norway’s Birk Ruud. “So my expectations weren’t super high.”
Chasing slopestyle perfection
Stevenson’s best event is his beloved slopestyle, where his whole battery of tricks and skills can be best put to work. A combination of rail features and jumps, the slopestyle event is the one that drew Stevenson in, long ago, in Park City. It was long before the Olympics were a reality or a star to aim for in the stratosphere.
“It’s insane what you have to do to win at slopestyle,” said Stevenson, who led an American podium sweep at the slopestyle Dew Tour contest in December in Colorado – shaking his head again in a gesture of amused disbelief. “You have to have the fluidity, creativity, amplitude, you know, going big, and, like, basically, perfection – you’re trying to do all your hardest and best tricks without making a mistake.”
Stevenson, who’s got about as much style and perspective – and just pure talent – as anyone in the sport, likes to keep his own standards when it comes time to drop in on the slopestyle course.
“I try to find success in not worrying about what the judges want,” said Stevenson, who’s got the chance to inspire a new group of young strivers back home in the States who are sure to be watching on TV. “If you go out there and lay down your run and land it the way you wanted to, that’s a win.”