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Olympics: Extreme sports drive U.S. showing in Sochi

Published February 16, 2014 12:29 pm

Olympics • Slopestyle, halfpipe, freestyle events have netted nine of the nation's 14 medals so far.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sochi, Russia • The X Games are saving the United States in the Olympic Games.

The extreme sports that recently jumped and spun their way into American culture have crashed the 2014 Winter Games program. "It's crazy that it's all in the Olympics now," said snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington of Salt Lake City.

The new sports have arrived just in time, for the sake of the folks who pretty much invented them. Americans would be enduring a fairly dismal Olympics so far, if not for the events being staged at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. On those courses, freestyle skiers and snowboarders have earned nine of the 14 medals for Team USA. Farrington's halfpipe event has been contested in the Olympics since 1998, but other elements of the competition are brand new.

Seven of those U.S. medals — including a bronze in mixed team figure skating — have come in events that were added to the program for 2014. Only two medals have come in events that permanently became part of the Winter Games prior to 1998.

Part of the explanation is scheduling. Many of the extreme sports were booked early in the Games, while traditional sports stayed in their usual time frame during the 16 days when medals are awarded. Good opportunities remain for the Americans to win medals in historic Olympic events such as skiing and bobsled.

Yet the theme is clearly established, at roughly the halfway point of these Games. The events that became part of the International Olympic Committee's effort to drive interest by appealing to a younger audience have boosted the U.S. performance in a big way.

Based on Sports Illustrated's historically accurate projections of 34 medals in the 2014 Games, the Americans should have earned 17 medals as of Saturday night. They have 14, through 50 of 98 medal events.

The best example of the new sports' impact on the U.S. showing is men's slopestyle skiing, a judged event involving jumps and rails. The skiers themselves never imagined being included in the Olympics. They figured competitions such as the Winter X Games and the Winter Dew Tour would serve as their primary exposure. But here they are in Russia, starring in the Olympics.

Park City native Joss Christensen led a U.S. sweep in the men's slopestyle event, becoming the third Utah-born winter athlete to earn Olympic gold (Farrington and Park City's Sage Kotsenburg, who won the snowboard slopestyle event, were born in Idaho).

Christensen described the skiers' performance as "a good showing of our sport," adding, "hopefully, the world recognizes how much fun we're having."

The U.S. Olympic Committee is certainly noticing. Amid some major disappointments in speedskating and Alpine skiing, Alan Ashley is thrilled with the 2014 additions.

Ashley, the USOC's chief of sport performance, formerly was a longtime executive with the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. He was instrumental in snowboarding's contribution to the U.S. effort after the halfpipe contest was added in 1998, and he figured 2014's new events would help the cause. Yet the performance is exceeding expectations, in multiple ways.

"It's fun to see the new disciplines, because I think they represent the continued evolution of sport," Ashley told the Team USA website. "What's interesting is that these new disciplines are really consistent with where the culture is."

Ashley labeled the performance of the men's slopestyle skiers "a complete surprise and inspiration." The extreme athletes generally have brought spirit and camaraderie to the 230-member U.S. team, he said, because they're "so positive, passionate and excited about competition."

The U.S. team has enjoyed some surprises in traditional sports, such as Erin Hamlin's first individual medal (bronze) in U.S. women's or men's luge history and Julia Mancuso's bronze in the super-combined Alpine skiing event.

Yet clearly, the Americans would be much further behind Russia in the medal count, if not for the new stuff.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt —

New medal surge

Medals for U.S. athletes in 2014, with the years those events (in their current format) were added to the Olympic program:

GoldEvent Year

Men's ski slopestyle 2014

Women's snowboard slopestyle 2014

Men's snowboard slopestyle 2014

Women's snowboard halfpipe 1998 Silver

Women's ski slopestyle 2014

Men's ski slopestyle 2014

Women's skeleton 2002 Bronze

Mixed team figure skating 2014

Men's ski slopestyle 2014

Women's skiing super combined 2010

Men's skeleton 2002

Women's skiing moguls 1992

Women's snowboard halfpipe 1998

Women's luge 1964