Interview with Sage Kotsenburg: First Impressions of Gold
Photos: Chris Wellhausen
Words: Shay Williams
How do you feel?
This past week has definitely been the craziest week of my life. After I ended up winning gold in slopestyle it was non-stop media until today. It’s been a fun experience that I’ll never forget.
Has it hit you that you’re an Olympic medalist and the first slopestyle gold medalist?
It’s hit me on a couple different occasions. It still feels so surreal and crazy. I was just stoked to be on the first ever US slopestyle team and that was cool enough. Going in I wanted to ride my best and hopefully get a medal. I ended up taking gold so that was just icing on the cake.
Do you feel like you were a part of snowboarding history?
Yeah. We’re almost like the pioneers, you know? We had no idea what the course was going to be like or how the vibe was going to be. I think you could tell watching that we were all having a lot of fun snowboarding and we definitely didn’t let the Olympic pressure get to us. It’s one for the history books. And for my own history book, it’s something that is up there.
What was it like when you got to the Olympics?
We left X Games and I came home for two nights and we went to Munich to go to Olympic Processing, which is where you get all your gear. You get clothes, outerwear, phones… watches. You get so much stuff. That was crazy and cool. You got to try on all the clothes and it got you really stoked. It all said USA and Olympic Team. It was sick to see that.
Then we all got on a flight early the next morning to Sochi. The whole time we were like, “Look at that,” on the drive up. It was really cool to be there finally. They put slopestyle into the Olympics three years ago and it was on the back of everyone’s radar for so long, that even at the beginning of the season it was still like four or five months away. It didn’t really make sense that we were going until we flew into Sochi and we saw people wearing the Olympic uniforms and Olympic rings, it was like, “Whoa, we’re here. I can’t believe we made it.” That moment was really cool.
We stayed up in the mountains, which were so sick. They are Alaska-type mountains and we had our own village that no one could really come into. I mean the whole bobsled, luge, alpine, slopestyle, pipe… all the mountain sports from every country was in one little village. It was so sick being in that environment. It was pretty next level.
What’s was it like being on a team, as snowboarding is a pretty individual sport?
Just being from the US and being on the first every slopestyle team… I wasn’t worried but more interested to see how people would take it? We are way more loosey-goosey than some of the other sports. We kind of do whatever we want. That’s the sickest thing about snowboarding. You can be as serious as you want; going to the gym and jumping on trampolines if you want, or goofing around and having a bunch of fun. Because once you’re in your run, you’re definitely in this state of mind that is a next level adrenaline rush.
But being on the US Team was so cool. So much support from back home. I’d read this stuff on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, it’d be like, “Go Sage,” or “#GoUSA, you make us proud,” and when you see that stuff, it made you feel so sweet. It’s another extra little rush, doing it for other people. You aren’t doing it for yourself anymore, you’re doing it for your country. No matter where you’re from; you could be from the smallest little country and everyone from there is rooting you on.
Did you have any hesitations before the season started about the Games?
Yeah, that’s the thing about the Olympics. We have our own tour up until the year of the Olympics, and then now we have to do a bunch of these other contests that we never really do. Some of these courses at World Cups—which we’d normally never do—were not really up to par for what we should be riding. That was my main focus: to go to the Olympics and make sure snowboarding was portrayed in a sick way. Have it be fun, and big, and everyone riding their best. No matter who won, I just wanted snowboarding to be looked at very well, and fun, but professionally too. We’re not there to only goof around. We might be loosey-goosey off the hill, but when we’re in our run, it’s serious business. I was thinking, “I hope I don’t get there and they are going to make a joke about us.” But it ended up going really smoothly. The course was super big and one of the best of the year, the day of the finals. Everything went really smoothly. All the thoughts and concerns I had got washed away as soon as I got there.
The mainstream media focused on the course being unsafe. Was it?
When we showed up, they had just finished the course. It’s pretty typical at a slopestyle contest to get there and ride the course and usually make some minor changes. Whether it’s a jump’s lip or maybe a knuckle is too sharp or too long. Maybe some of the rails are a little off. There are always things that need to be changed. And they did that. There was too much pop on the jumps and they fixed it in a day or two. After that it was perfect. As far as the safety and danger stuff goes, that bugged me. People kept saying the course was dangerous, but we’re at the Olympics. You don’t go down a luge or bobsled track or the downhill race course and say, “Oh yeah this is a mellow, safe course.” It’s gnarly stuff. I didn’t want to go there and have the course be small and be safe. Everything we do is dangerous. We’re snowboarding down a course of rails and huge jumps. So there’s definitely an aspect of danger in snowboarding. It’s something we’re drawn to. There is something about it. There is something sick to be a little bit reckless in there, which makes us thrive. All courses are dangerous. This one was big and scary at first, but that’s what we should be riding. It’s the Olympics. If I showed up and the course was smaller, I wouldn’t have been as stoked.
Can you take me through the finals day? You weren’t an underdog, but you weren’t exactly the odds-on favorite to win gold.
We had qualifiers and I didn’t end up making it straight to finals, so I had to compete in the semifinal round, which was two days later.
That day we had 8:30 a.m. practice, which was crazy because the sun wasn’t even on the course until 9:20, 10 minutes before practice ended. I started practicing and was just having so much fun on the course. It felt good that day. Some days you are on a course and you force yourself to do tricks or think “Oh man, that feature is bugging me today.” But every feature I hit that whole day made sense to me. I never thought about anything more than once. I just did it. I was in a crazy mindset.
We did our first run of semifinals and I landed a good run and was in second place and eventually made it into finals. But it felt so weird and random to me. We had made it to the Olympics and we’re finally here. But I was almost bummed out that there were only two more runs left and it’d be all over. Because at first I couldn’t wait for it to be over and just go snowboard again. But when we were practicing I was thinking that this was such a cool experience so no matter what happens I’m going to go and have fun. That’s when I started thinking; maybe I’ll do a new trick.
That’s when I thought about doing the 1620. I’d never tried it before. Ever. I thought about it in practice a little, but didn’t end up doing it… I have no idea why. I just didn’t want to practice it; it didn’t make sense in my mind to practice it. People think that’s so weird, but sometimes you make bad habits when you’re trying tricks for the first time. That’s how I am with my 1440s. I called my brother [Blaze Kotsenburg] and told him I might go 1620 and he said, “Sick, I think you got it, but are you sure you don’t want to go 1440 first?” I thought about the last times I did 1440s and I always landed backseat and fell over. I said, “Nah, I think I’m just going to go 1620 and not have any bad habits.”
He said, “Yeah man you got this. We’re all watching this back home, you’ve got the whole country behind you, as well as Park City and Salt Lake City, just go have fun and enjoy it. If you land, that’s so sick we’ll be hyped. If not, you’re still in the finals of the Olympics, go have fun.” Once I heard that I got so hyped. That was probably about 15 minutes before finals.
Then I talked to the US Coach Bill Enos and told him I was thinking about a 1620 and he immediately said, “Yes, you got it. You’re riding so sick today. Don’t even think about it. Visualize obviously, but don’t think about it; go ride.” And that’s what I did. I visualized before my run but when I dropped in I was going feature-to-feature. And I landed everything up until and then I thought, “Well, here goes nothing.” I threw the 1620 and it made sense in the air. It came around perfect. What just happened! I threw my hands in the air. I thought I could podium, but never thought I could win, but when the score came in, it was like, “OH MY GOD. It could go down.”
I was third to drop as I didn’t rank very high from semis, I had to watch everyone come down for two runs. It was so stressful. I just put my music in and hung out. Everyone that came down that landed a run I thought that was it. But no one knocked me out, and it was just a crazy day.
What went through your head when you realized you had just won.
When Max [Parrot] came down, he laid down an insane run. The way the scoring was going, I didn’t think I had it, but it was going to be close. Me and Stale [Sandbech] were just hanging out on an inflatable thing having fun, trying to take our minds off of it. I remember hearing the announcer say, “Max’s score coming in… AND HE DOESN’T DO IT! SAGE WINS!” I honestly didn’t know what to think. Obviously, you come to the Olympics thinking about winning and I am not one to put a claim on winning, so that was crazy for me. It took so long to get there, from qualifiers to semis to watching everyone’s runs in finals.
If no one was at the bottom and I couldn’t talk to anyone, I would have just laid down. But everyone was screaming and Stale was throwing me in the air. I was saying, “What is going on?!” In my head I must have said that 100 times. I’ll never forget that moment, when the score came in and my jaw dropped to the floor.
When was the medal ceremony?
It was later that night. Which was another crazy thing. I didn’t have any time to chill. I won and they made a super big deal because it was the first gold of the Games. I did interviews for an hour, did a press conference, then drug testing. I was trying to call my parents, but the phone wasn’t working so I Facebook messaged them [laughs]. The US Team went and got me my clothes because I didn’t have a minute to chill. I changed outside of the drug testing place, out of sweaty, dripping wet snowboard clothes right into the awards ceremony clothes. I felt disgusting. I was so hot and nasty. Then I went down to awards did more interviews and crazy press.
What was it like standing on stage with the American flag raised and the national anthem playing?
They took us to this place when we got there, in this room. They briefed us on where to walk, what to do. They had this white board. I felt like I was in the Super Bowl and we were making a play. It was crazy.
You’re still saying I can’t believe this is happening. We walk out and it was just mental. It wasn’t just US, Canada, and Norway, but there were so many people, lots of other countries hootin’ and hollerin’. We were waving and people were just losing their minds. You get the flowers and the medal and then they do the national anthem, and that’s when it really hit me. Not on an emotional level. But everything hit me at once when the flag was going up. I just closed my eyes a couple times. I was thinking that this is the craziest moment ever and it’s something that I’ll never forget. I can still feel it now. My heart was beating so fast and I didn’t even know what to do. Mark [McMorris] looked at me and said, “My knees are shaking,” and I looked back and said the same. It was insane.
You’re known for having a unique style and different take on contest snowboarding. Is your style something you didn’t want to compromise just because it’s the Olympics?
That was the thing, I was not really getting good scores in qualifiers with the run I was doing. I was doing the craziest runs I’ve ever done, from the tweaks and grabs to the rails, I was so stoked but I wasn’t getting any love. I was bummed at first but then I checked all my messages and all these people within snowboarding were saying, “Don’t change,” or “Don’t let anything get you down,” “Keep doing what you’re doing.” That’s cool, from everyone inside of snowboarding. I’m a snowboarder and regardless of what people in the mass media say, I’m a snowboarder and I’m going to try and stay as true as I can. Why would I ever change my run to win? I definitely switched up my run a little, doing harder rail tricks, but then I added a layback slide [laughs] which was me saying, I’m not going to do anything for you guys. No one does those in a run. But I then followed it up with a 1620. I was thinking there is a happy medium between all the creative stuff and weird tricks, but you can put something like a bigger spin or triple cork and you wouldn’t lose all your creativity. Maybe do all that cool stuff leading up to it, and then end on the super technical trick.
It was something I thought about, I’m not going to change for the judges. At the end of the day I don’t care what a judge thinks about my snowboarding. If you like it, awesome. If you don’t, that’s fine with me. Everyone has their opinion, but this is how I snowboard. Whether it’s Olympics or X Games or powder or rails. I look at things a little bit differently and I like to do weird stuff. Maybe it’s not the stuff the judges can even process if it’s hard or not. Going up a rail leaning back with your hands on your board, it’s weird. I almost fell a lot of times in practice and almost thought that maybe I shouldn’t do this. I ended up just staying true to myself and to win with a run that I put together and didn’t change for a judge. Well, I guess I changed the 1620. So one feature I changed.
Do you think that snowboarding was well represented at slopestyle?
I kind of worried that it wouldn’t be portrayed well, but I think it was. A lot of people can relate to it because not everyone goes and trains for one moment for their whole life. As much as there are sacrifices in snowboarding, we go about things way differently. We have fun. We high five whether you’re from Norway or Belgium or Canada or Slovakia. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you’re welcome to snowboard and you’ll have an awesome friendship and camaraderie. That’s something a lot of viewers can relate to. We’re out there having fun, but also doing some crazy maneuvers and stunts that people are like, “What are those stunts?” “We would never do that.” I think people are really stoked on it.
Is it nuts to think about the mainstream response to it?
The whole mass media was watching slopestyle because it was this new event, on the first day. Whether you won or didn’t win, people were interviewing you. I think they did a lot better job than in previous Olympics getting the vibe right. In the mass media sense, they were all stoked on it, and they saw we were all friends.
I’ve been hit up so much over the past three or four days with messages saying, “I’ve never snowboarded but I’m going this weekend because of you,” or “My kids are going snowboarding this weekend after they saw you in slopestyle.” That’s so cool and really opened up my eyes. It’s crazy the effect you can have on kids. It would be cool to help them get into snowboarding for the right reasons.
Do you think some of the athletes can lose a little perspective?
Yeah. You can easily get so lost in the craziness and hype of the Olympics. Or you can dwell on doing badly at the Olympics for the rest of your life. Or you can learn from it. We were all pioneers and no one can take that away. But say you get a gold medal. Or two or three. It’s pretty nuts what they’ll do to you. I mean, over the past week I met Jimmy Fallon. I met Denzel Washington. I got invited to Grammy parties. That’s the stuff you can get so lost in. You can just bail on snowboarding but snowboarding made you who you are. You have to stay as true as you can. You might have won the Olympics and that blew you up, but you wouldn’t be anywhere without snowboarding. You just have to take it all with a grain of salt. Enjoy everything but maybe just go ride some powder once in a while. I’m not gonna move to Hollywood and hang with Paris Hitlon. I’m just gonna snowboard everyday that I can. Obviously, if I have to do some crazy Grammy stuff, I’m down. That stuff is super fun and an experience, but don’t get lost in it.
Will you let this moment define your career?
I wouldn’t say it’s a defining moment. It’s the best moment of my life. But I would love to make a snowboard movie in a couple years or something. Something that isn’t a contest. Just get people into a different side of snowboarding. How I got into snowboarding was through movies, and then I saw the contest side. I hope that a lot of kids don’t get into snowboarding just to win the Olympics. That would bum me out. Get into it for fun and make a lot of fun. Competing is awesome. Winning is cool, but not why you should snowboard. It’s just another milestone in my career. It happened pretty early for me, but I’m ready to keep snowboarding and see what it can bring to me. Try and just enjoy it.