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'Sweet' sweep, stories for U.S. men's slopestyle team at Sochi

Slopestylers Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper fly into U.S. Olympic medal history held aloft by a dad's memory, puppies and Indiana pride.

February 13, 2014|Bill Plaschke

SOCHI, Russia — On a warm slope above the Black Sea, America's colors blazed with new definition.

Red, white and blue became Joss, Gus and Nick.

In the perfect sweep for an evolving Winter Olympics and the ever-changing American athletes who twist through them, Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper finished first, second and third, respectively, in the inaugural men's slopestyle skiing competition Thursday.

Christensen skied with a photo of his late father tucked into his suit. Kenworthy skied for the future of five stray Russian dogs. Goepper skied for all those folks back on his boyhood slopes of … southern Indiana?

FRAMEWORK: Best images from Sochi

Their hair was tangled, their words spilled out of their mouth like yawns, their motivations were varied, but their runs were killer, and they flew into history.

"A trip,'' said Christensen.

"Sweet,'' said Kenworthy.

"Awesomeness,'' said Goepper.

It was only the third time the U.S. has swept the podium in the Winter Olympics, but the first time it was done by three bros.

"It's pretty simple,'' Christensen said. "We're just a bunch of friends trying to have fun.''

In a breathtaking event that looks like snowboarding with the volume pumped, the three skiers flew off rails and over bumps and eventually seemed to float through a clear blue sky with backs hunched and skis crossed.

Christensen, who was the last person named to the team, clinched the gold by using a twirling move called "Switch Triple Cork 1260'' that he learned only two practices ago. It must be fun, indeed, to win a Super Bowl on a play drawn up in the sideline dirt.

"I just wanted to make the team, that was my goal this year,'' the 22-year-old said. "I can't believe I ended up winning.''

The three medals represented one-fourth of the U.S. total of 12, with all four gold medals being won by extreme-sport athletes. While America searches for new heroes in its more traditional winter sports like figure skating and skiing, the baggy-pants crowd have shrugged and shuffled into the breach.

"Hearing 'The United States of America' announced three times in a row was pretty awesome,'' Kenworthy said.

For Christensen, whose father, JD, died from a heart condition in August when Joss was on a plane to New Zealand, his awesome was in saying goodbye. Christensen brought his father's photo with him to the opening ceremony and then stuck it in his ski uniform during Thursday's race. Afterward, he and his mother, Debbie, hugged and wept over the loss, the win, and perhaps the closure.

"I hope he's proud,'' Christensen said.

Kenworthy, also 22, found his awesome earlier in these Olympics when he rounded up a stray female dog and her four puppies before Russian authorities could capture and possibly exterminate them.

"I said to someone, 'I just want to leave with a medal and some puppies,''' he said.

Kenworthy is keeping the five dogs with him in the Olympic Village. Now that he's earned that medal, he's trying to figure out how to take them home. In the meantime, he says he has been overwhelmed with positive support not for his skiing but for his dogs.

"A lot of girls like Olympians and puppies,'' he said.

Then there is 19-year-old Goepper, whose awesome was the celebration of a journey even more surreal than his otherworldly jumps down the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.

Goepper is from Lawrenceburg, a southeast Indiana town of about 5,000. As a child, he would spend three months a year skiing down the 400-foot bump of a hill at Perfect North Slopes near his home. It was about one-fourth the size of an average ski resort vertical drop. The other nine months, he would ski off AstroTurf and pipes on a homemade backyard obstacle course.

"To realize I've come all the way to this stage from my humble beginnings makes me super proud,'' Goepper said. "Whenever my name is announced on a loudspeaker, the thing I'm most proud of is them telling everyone I'm from Indiana.''

Clumps of AstroTurf and bits of pipe are still in his Indiana backyard. In fact, when a film crew was visiting last summer, Goepper absently kicked the AstroTurf and an angry swarm of bees escaped and attacked his guests. The Perfect North Slopes is also still there, with its five chairlifts and relentless snow guns. One of its owners, Chip Perfect, even bought an 80-inch TV and hosted a tape-delayed viewing party there Thursday night.

"It's fairly overwhelming,'' Perfect said by phone. "Nick was so talented growing up, when he would come to the park, the staff would all get together and watch him while eating our lunch.''

Small towns. Puppies. The memory of a beloved dad. Those divergent shades might not have been the usual colors found on an Olympic podium, but on a bro-spangled Thursday in Russia, Joss, Gus and Nick were most certainly the colors of America.

Twitter: @billplaschke

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