Wild card Christensen strikes surprise freestyle gold in Sochi

Freestyle skier Joss Christensen only made it to Sochi 2014 by the skin of his teeth, after being handed a discretionary spot on the USA’s Olympic team. Determined to make the most of this opportunity, he wowed the judges to become ski slopestyle’s very first Olympic champion.

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Competition was fierce for the freestyle skiing slots on the USA team for the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, with a clutch of talented performers vying to meet the selection criteria of two podiums in five qualifying events. Among them was 22-year-old Christensen, a Park City native, who was bidding to qualify while trying to cope with the recent death of his father, a big driving force behind his Olympic aspirations.

Last-minute ticket

Unable to manage a top-three placing in the first four slopestyle qualifying competitions, Christensen saved his best till last, winning the fifth and final event at his home resort in Utah. It was not enough, however, to secure him an automatic spot. He had to wait to see if he had done enough to earn the one discretionary place available. It was between him and the reigning world champion Tom Wallisch.

“It was very stressful,” he later recalled. “They named three out of four after our last qualifying event (Gus Kenworthy, Nick Goepper and Bobby Brown) and I just had to sit back and wait until [the team coaches] made the decision.”

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The wait ended in late January 2014, when Christensen received a call from his coach while he was driving to the X Games in Aspen, barely two weeks before the Winter Olympics: “I knew we were going to get a call no matter what and I didn’t know if it would be bad news or good news. He told me I could pack my bags for Sochi, so it was a pretty crazy moment.”

New tricks

Christensen’s Olympics got off to the best possible start when his childhood friend Sage Kotsenburg won the men’s slopestyle snowboard competition, beating Norway’s Stale Sandbech and Canada’s Mark McMorris.

“It kind of got everything off to a great start for me,” said the American, who remembered thinking at the time that seeing his best friend win the Olympics was the happiest experience of his life. Little did he know that there was an even brighter day just around the corner.

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Christensen spent the days leading up to his event trying to perfect the switch triple rodeo 1260 Japan, one of the hardest tricks around. He had never attempted it before, let alone used it in competition. The hours of practice paid off. When competition day came, he broke out his brand new trick on his first run, taking off backwards and rotating three times in the air before nailing the perfect landing. It earned him a score of 95.80 and a commanding lead, which he converted into gold with a sparkling second run that brought him 93.80 points, the second-highest of the competition. Completing an all-US podium were his team-mates Kenworthy and Goepper.

“I wanted to show everyone that it was a good decision [to select me for the team] and to prove it to myself too,” he said afterwards. “I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself, I just tried to ski well, do my best and have fun. I think it worked out that way too. If it wasn’t for that trick, I wouldn’t have won.”

Olympic launch pad

Reflecting on his triumph, Christensen added: “It was definitely the best competition of my life. The course was so good in Sochi. Jumps were really big, rails were really nice, there were a lot of options. And the level of skiing that day was the best our sport has seen so far. So the fact that I was able to top the podium that day was huge for me.

“If I hadn’t made the Olympics, I don’t know if I would have been able to keep supporting myself to ski,” he added. ”I was thinking about going back to school and maybe seeking a different route. But the Olympics provided me with so many opportunities. I was very lucky that I could keep it going.”

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Winning an Olympic gold was a launch pad for Christensen, who went on to record his first World Cup wins and collect X Games silver in 2015. Injuries have since checked his progress, however, after undergoing a knee operation in 2016, he was sidelined for eight months. Now back to full fitness, he will not have to face another nervous wait to make the US team for PyeongChang 2018, and he should arrive at Bokwang Phoenix Park full of confidence as he prepares to defend his Olympic title.