Krasnaya Polyana, Russia • Six months ago, Joss Christensen abandoned his skiing career to return home to Utah after stepping off an airplane in New Zealand to learn that his father had died.
Now, he’s an Olympic champion.
The 22-year-old Park City native completed one of the most improbable runs to a gold medal of the Sochi Olympics on Thursday, going from just barely making the U.S. Olympic team to leading the first American sweep of a winter podium since the 2002 Salt Lake Games.
He’s already the third Utahn to win gold here, and he dedicated his victory in the new ski slopestyle event to his late father, JD Christensen, whose photo he carried in his pocket throughout his winning performance.
“I just can’t believe I wound up winning,” Christensen said. “Best day of my life so far.”
Christensen took his final run under bright blue skies knowing he’d already clinched the gold, and skied at the finish into the embrace of friends and fellow Americans Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper, who finished second and third. It was only the third time in winter Olympic history that Americans had swept the podium.
“Pure euphoria,” Christensen said.
The victory helped buoy Team USA after some high-profile flops here, and it helped cement the Beehive State as the center of the freeski and snowboard universe.
In six freeskiing and snowboarding events contested here so far, Utah residents have won five medals — including golds by Christensen, Park City’s Sage Kotsenburg in snowboard slopestyle and Salt Lake City resident Kaitlyn Farrington in snowboard halfpipe.
“It’s, more than anything, just kind of showcasing to the Olympic community and also to the rest of the world how competitive and how cool and how overall awesome slopestyle is,” Goepper said. “It will be a highlight Olympic event for many games to come.”
All three Utah champions so far were surprise winners.
Kotsenburg was nobody’s favorite with a style that favored creativity over big tricks, and Farrington said she was simply hoping to reach the finals.
Much like both of them, Christensen was totally overlooked entering the competition.
After his father’s death of heart problems last August at age 67, he dedicated himself to simply making the Olympics team, but strained to reach the podium at qualifying events.
Though he won the final one in Park City, Christensen had not fared well enough in previous competitions to qualify automatically for Sochi, so he had to wait three days to land a discretionary spot on the U.S. team over good friend Alex Schlopy.
Meanwhile, Goepper, Kenworthy and Bobby Brown, who finished ninth here, were heralded as the three who could sweep the podium.
“He came in as the underdog and took the opportunity,” Kotsenburg said.
The Winter Sports School graduate who grew up skiing at Park City Mountain Resort, Deer Valley and the Canyons Resort did it by qualifying first through the finals — he was simply “relieved” to get that far, he said — and then stomping his first run in the finals by showcasing tremendous technical skills and a huge triple-cork jump, a switch triple 1260, for the first time after learning it just three days earlier.
“I knew that it was probably going to be a huge part of success here,” he said.
His score of 95.80 held up to every challenge, and soon his friends Goepper and Kenworthy were carrying him off the podium while his mother, Debbie Christensen, watched from the crowd. Her son was such a late addition to the U.S. team that she didn’t book her flight until three days before the Opening Ceremony.
Oh, and his score from his unnecessary second run?
It was 93.80, also better than every other score in the finals.
“I hope I made my father proud,” Christensen said. “He’s always supported me from day one through all the injuries I’ve had, which scare parents a lot. He never said stop. I wish he was here and I hope he is smiling down on me. … I did it for him.”
Home of the gold
In six freeskiing and snowboarding events held so far at the Sochi Olympics, five Utah residents have won medals:
Athlete Residence Sport Medal
Sage Kotsenburg Park City Snowboard slopestyle Gold
Joss Christensen Park City Ski Slopestyle Gold
Kaitlyn Farrington Salt Lake City Snowboard Halfpipe Gold
Devin Logan Park City Ski Slopestyle Silver
Torah Bright Salt Lake City Snowboard Halfpipe Silver
Only three American teams have ever swept the podium at the Winter Olympics:
2014 Men’s ski slopestyle
2002 Men’s snowboard halfpipe
1956 Men’s figure skating