Christensen's gold validates decision

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- There were so many tears in the finish area at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park Thursday afternoon, it was difficult to tell who was happiest for Joss Christensen. The first men's ski slopestyle gold medalist in Olympic history and his teammates became only the third trio of U.S. athletes to sweep a Winter Olympics podium.

There was Joss' mom, Debbie, still in shock that she was even here in Russia watching her son compete in the Olympics. There were the members of the U.S. men's ski halfpipe team, who were hugging anyone dressed in red, white and blue and shouting how proud they were of the manner in which their teammates had just debuted the sport of freeskiing to the world. There was slopestyle silver medalist Devin Logan's mom, Nancy, tears streaming down her cheeks. And halfpipe skier Brita Sigourney, who said no matter what happens in her event on Feb. 20, watching Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper sweep the podium made her week.

"Joss does more than anyone, he works so hard," Sigourney said through tears and laughter and sniffles. "There was no doubt in my mind that he could win the Olympics. He earned that spot and he wanted to prove that to everyone else. He is the best skier here."

After finishing first overall in qualifiers and landing both of his runs in finals, which included a crafty top section, a double cork 1260 and the only switch triple cork 1260 of the competition, that was no longer a question. After qualifiers, teammate Bobby Brown called Christensen the skier to beat, saying his performance came as no surprise, considering he had been the most consistent and solid skier in practice all week.

"This means a lot to me," Christensen said after the flower ceremony. "I wanted to keep the ball rolling. I wanted to prove myself. I didn't try to put any more pressure on myself. I just wanted to ski and have fun and it worked out."

Al Bello/Getty Images

Bronze medalist Nick Goepper (left), gold medalist Joss Christensen (center) and silver medalist Gus Kenworthy (right), all of the United States, celebrate their ski slopestyle sweep.

But it has been a long road to the podium. After two seasons in which he improved both his skiing and results, Christensen entered the 2014 Olympic qualifying season confident he had the ability to make the team. In August, he flew to New Zealand for a World Cup event in Cardrona, where he hoped to earn the required FIS points.

The slopestyle event was scheduled for Aug. 18. But on Aug. 15, he got word that his father, JD, the man who had instilled a love and passion for the sport of skiing, had died at home in Park City, Utah.

"He had to bail on the event and come home and he wasn't sure he'd even be able to make the team," Kenworthy said.

After a slow start in the first two Grand Prix contests, Christensen won the final qualifier in Park City and, after several tiebreakers, finished the season in fourth place in the standings. The U.S. team planned to send four slopestyle skiers to the Games.

But although Christensen had claimed that coveted fourth spot, many insiders believed the fourth discretionary pick would, and should, go to 2013 X Games champ Tom Wallisch, who had dominated slopestyle skiing during the 2013 season, but struggled during Olympic qualifying and finished seventh overall. When Christensen was announced as the coach's pick over Wallisch, freeski fans lit up message boards and Twitter, demanding the decision be reversed.

"It was a really awkward situation and hard on Joss," Debbie Christensen said. "He looks up to Tom as a role model. And Tom was really gracious. His fans didn't know [Tom] was injured."

But the coaches knew. Then, one week after the U.S. team was announced, Wallisch and his sponsors released a 10-minute video documenting that he had been skiing with a torn ACL suffered in a crash in New Zealand in the fall. He had decided to forgo surgery, but he simply wasn't able to ski with his typical power and finesse. The video silenced some of the pro-Wallisch chatter, but at that point, the damage had been done.

When Christensen finally arrived in Sochi, surrounded by his teammates and friends, away from all of the noise back home, he finally relaxed.

"When he got to Europe, I saw the photos on Twitter and I've never seen him look so happy," Debbie Christensen said. "I was so happy to see a smile on his face after everything he's been through. He was around his friends and the coaches who stood up and stuck their necks out for him."

Now all he had to do was focus on his skiing. When he saw the course in Sochi and its massive jumps, he knew it would allow him to throw the triple corks he'd been working on. Because the skiers competed five days after the snowboarders, they had nearly a week and a half of practice on the course. Every day in Sochi, his confidence grew. Two days before finals, he learned the switch triple cork 1260 and landed it on every attempt.

"He had something to prove. He got the fourth spot instead of Wallisch and he didn't crumple under that pressure," U.S. coach Mike Jankowski said. "He's been using it as energy and motivation."

Added Kenworthy: "Joss skied beautifully this year and is such an incredible guy. I'm so happy I got to watch him today. I couldn't be prouder."

Those last 13 words were uttered verbatim by Christensen's mom just minutes earlier. Two weeks before the Games, Debbie was planning to watch the competition on TV at home with Joss' brother, Charlie. But a group of her friends in Park City, many of them her late husband's golfing buddies, held a fundraiser party and raised enough money to send her to Sochi.

"They did it for JD," she said. "They said, 'He can't be there. But you have to be there for Joss.' "

Debbie cashed in the airline miles she had earned following Joss to contests around the world to pay for her ticket to Russia. A friend pitched in and donated enough miles for the return. Nancy Logan offered the spare bed in her hotel room in the mountains, and several moms told Debbie they would make sure she didn't eat a single meal alone.

"I hope I made my father proud today," said Christensen, who flew to Russia carrying his dad's picture in his pocket and held it up as he walked in to Fisht Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony. "He's been supporting me from day one through all the injuries, which I know scare parents a lot. He always supported me and he never said 'stop.' I wish he was here. But I hope he's looking down and smiling. I hope I made him proud. I did it for him."

He likely would have been crying, too.

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