Krasnaya Polyana, Russia •Nobody’s Games ended before they could begin.
More than 24 hours before the Opening Ceremony, slopestyle snowboarders staged their own Olympic debut Thursday. They took over the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, riding the rails and soaring off jumps in the sunshine, generally having the kind of fun that only snowboarders do.
The early beginning of these Games was a concession to the 2014 program’s additional events. The Opening Ceremony is important, as Russia’s opportunity to make a first impression, but there’s something about the snowboarding culture of freedom and expression that made these athletes the ideal starters.
And they’ll get to stick around. Not wanting to make eliminations an entire day before the official launch, organizers advanced everyone to Saturday’s men’s and women’s semifinals, at a minimum.
And they’ll savor the Olympic experience. "The whole vibe is way different than I thought," said Park City’s Sage Kotsenburg. "Everyone is having so much fun. It’s just a sick vibe. The mountains are insane."
If you’re just joining us, those adjectives are complimentary in the snowboarding world. Kotsenburg spoke less favorably about the judging, believing his attempt to introduce new moves to the sport went unrewarded. Shaun White’s absence was another subject of some contempt, with a late withdrawal to save himself for Tuesday’s halfpipe event leaving U.S. teammate Chas Guldemond "a little bummed" that nobody could replace White at that stage.
"Pretty unfortunate that [others] missed their opportunity to come to the Games, so that was a pretty big blow," Guldemond said, before adding this jab: "I’m surprised that he pulled out so late. I knew it was coming sometime this year."
So the sport’s biggest star was missing, but former skiing champion Picabo Street’s recent words rang true about how the Olympics "transcend all cultures and all boundaries, and it’s really one of the only things that does that in our world."
As evidence, the slopestyle event brought together an Australian from Sugar House and an Irishman from Park City.
Salt Lake City’s Torah Bright is the women’s defending champion in the halfpipe, and she’s also biting off the slopestyle and snowboardcross events in 2014. "I’m doing three events and I’m going to have a hell of a time," she said with her usual smile and giggle.
Bright was among the athletes who had criticized the course design. But as is standard practice in snowboarding, officials listened to the riders and made adjustments. "There were some very unhappy people, because this is the debut of slopestyle," Bright said. "We want to put on a great show for the world."
Seamus O’Connor, 16, struggled with new tricks but will be allowed to compete in the semifinals. He’s also entered in the halfpipe, so he would have stuck around anyway, delighting his parents. Kevin O’Connor is watching his son compete for his own parents’ native Ireland. Elena, the athlete’s mother, is near her Russian birthplace.
So this is quite a convergence for a kid who was born in San Diego and has spent about half of his life in Park City.
Kevin O’Connor, not be with confused with Jay Don Blake’s former Utah State golf teammate (or the Jazz executive) of the same name, discovered his son’s potential eligibility and conceived of this family plan nearly seven years ago, when Russia was awarded the Games.
"I feel very Irish, and I feel very lucky to be here," Seamus O’Connor said. "It came together perfectly."
That was not true of his Olympic debut, but he loved being part of the show. The Games had begun, amid a lot of fun.
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