KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – This time around, the judges gave Sage Kotsenburg the score he deserved. And Kotsenburg gave the United States the first gold medal of the Sochi Games.
Kotsenburg, the 20-year-old from Park City, Utah, stomped a 93.5 on his first run of the inaugural Olympic slopestyle contest and watched it hold up in a massive upset.
As top competitors Max Parrot and Mark McMorris of Canada faltered, Kotsenburg took advantage with an array of technical tricks like the Japan air and a double nose-grab.
And with Shaun White having dropped out of slopestyle earlier this week, Kotsenburg picked up the mantel for the Americans as the only U.S. rider in the finals.
Kotsenburg twirled an American flag in celebration after his victory was secure when Parrot's score fell short of the medal stand in the event's final run. The gold was also the first medal won by a U.S. Olympian in Russia. The United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, the only other time Russia has played host to the Olympics.
"He's the best ambassador you could have for the sport," U.S. snowboarding coach Mike Jankowski said.
Kotsenburg was surprised he even reached the finals, tweeting his disbelief after he qualified in the semifinals Saturday morning.
Slopestyle was making its Olympic debut, and Kotsenburg expressed concern about the judge-by-committee system after Thursday's qualifying round. He was skeptical judges would reward his unique tricks over the spinning favored by other competitors.
"I'd rather not conform to making the judges happy," Kotsenburg said.
Staale Sandbech of Norway took the silver with a 91.75 in his second run. McMorris, who was competing with a broken rib, finished with the bronze at 88.75.
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White withdrew from the event on Wednesday, one day after jamming his left wrist in a training run at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. The course had been criticized by some riders for its harshness, and White said he didn't want to risk injury at the expense of pursuing his third straight gold medal in the halfpipe.
Kotsenburg wasn't among those riders. He downplayed the dangerousness of the course earlier in the week then tamed it on Saturday. White saluted his performance and that of the other two medalists.
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