A huge statement was made at the first snowboard slopestyle contest in Olympic history Saturday afternoon. But it wasn't the riders with the loudest voices: It was the judges. By awarding U.S. rider Sage Kotsenburg the highest score of the day -- a 93.5 in his triple-free first run, three runs into finals -- they made it clear they were rewarding creativity and spins over triple corks. It was up to the riders to adjust.
"Sage was out there doing all these creative grabs with a big smile, having fun shredding, and that paid off today," said silver medalist Staale Sandbech of Norway. "It's cool. We get the creativity back in snowboarding. The judges said it's not just about triple flips and triple corks all the time."
But, coming into Saturday's final, that's exactly what it was all about. It's been so for the past few years, since triples became a staple of slopestyle competition. And after Canadian rider Max Parrot won the X Games in January by landing the first back-to-back triples in a slopestyle contest, folks began to wonder whether a rider would throw three in one run in Sochi. In interviews leading up to Saturday's final, the most common refrain from the riders: It will take two triples to win. At least two triples.
And then, without warning, it didn't.
Kotsenburg, one of the most popular riders on the U.S. team, a guy known for his incredible style and creative lines -- but not for winning major contests -- won the Olympics without throwing a single triple. Canadian rider Mark McMorris, who, coming into this event was considered the gold standard in slopestyle riding, landed two different triple corks in his run -- the only rider to do so in Sochi -- and didn't break 90. He finished third.
"When Mark landed his [second] run, we thought he'd take the top spot," said Canadian rider Sebastien Toutant, who finished ninth. "Sage did all this creative stuff, and you could tell he was having fun. He didn't follow the path of triples, and he did different grabs. Today, the judges were looking for something we haven't seen before. Sage winning with no triples shows there is so much more to snowboarding, but, at the same time, judges want to see progression."
When McMorris' second-run score of 88.75 was announced, the reaction from the crowd was one of visible confusion. He was the only rider to land two triples, and the assumption was the first rider to do so would leapfrog the rest of the field. When he didn't, the remaining riders began changing up their runs.
"I was planning to throw the Cab triple, but they didn't score the highest for that trick, so I changed to a Cab 12 with a tweaked grab, a frontside 14 and a backside triple indy," Sandbech said. "It was about your own way of doing tricks and changing up the grabs so not everyone was doing the same tricks with the same grabs. That's what they wanted to see."
Few would argue that rewarding Kotsenburg's run -- which included a Cab double cork 1260 holy crail (a technical grab he invented this season), a frontside 1080 rocket air (the only one of the contest) and a backside 1620 Japan (the first landed in slopestyle competition) -- wasn't good for the sport of snowboarding. The riders he beat agreed, but acknowledged it would have served them to know what the judges were rewarding.
"Sage's run was really cool. His style is amazing," Parrot said. "I just think it would be helpful if the judges tell us if they are going to judge style or tricks. It would be good to know before the event."
But perhaps even the judges didn't yet know. It was as if, at the start of finals, they realized that rewarding two triple corks in the Olympics would send the sport of slopestyle snowboarding on an irreversible trajectory toward quads and 1800s and aerial skiing. So they dug in their heels and made a statement that quite possibly changed the course of the sport's progression.
"Looking at where slopestyle judging has been going, today is a huge surprise," said Andy Finch, who competed on the 2006 Olympic halfpipe team and is in Sochi working as an analyst. "But the snowboarding community has been crying for style to be valued and their voices have been heard. The judges listened to them, and they took a huge stand. It's heartbreaking to see how hard Max, Sven and McMorris pushed to do those gnarly tricks. But snowboarders have been fighting this progression, and it's interesting the stand was made here at the Olympics."
If there was one rider who was perfectly content with the way the scores were dealt, it was the guy who didn't come to the Olympics planning to win. In the weeks leading up to slopestyle's Olympic debut, Kotsenburg said he just wanted to show a different side to snowboarding, ride his way, have fun and, "land my random, weird tricks." He said he was happy just to make the team, surprised to make finals and thrilled to land the run he wanted to land. He had never even tried that backside 1620 Japan before he landed it in his first run. Riders in the rest of the field stressed for months over their Olympic runs, but Kotsenburg woke up Saturday morning and a thought popped into his mind.
"I got this crazy idea, so I called my brother and then I talked to Billy [Enos], the U.S. team coach," Kotsenburg said. "I said, 'I think I'm going to do a [backside] 1620 Japan.' I've never tried it, but I like doing crazy, spontaneous things. Billy said, 'Send it. What do you have to lose?'"
In the end, a lot less than he had to gain.