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Gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg — you don't know this bro

Published July 7, 2014 12:24 pm

Park City resident and Olympic champ Sage Kotsenburg soars above snowboarding stereotypes as he enjoys newfound fame.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Park City • Having endorsed a "Totally Dope Refi Mortgage" offer on late-night television, Sage Kotsenburg is intently discussing his fascination with psychology.

His lunch order includes no mention of extra "spoicy" or any of the other signature phrases that helped him become a subject of fascination in the wake of his Olympic gold medal performance. The one-dimensional caricature of a snowboarder simply won't fit the person who's engaged in this conversation, using words such as "intrigued" and marveling about reactions to his success in Sochi.

That's Sage. "You can't put him in a box," said his mother, Carol Ann.

Everybody tried to do so in February, framing Kotsenburg as this century's Spicoli — the shaggy-haired Sean Penn character who defined the slacker culture in the 1980s movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Kotsenburg played along, speaking the snowboarding language in interviews and effortlessly delivering his scripted lines on the New York media circuit.

So who is this guy? The answer seemingly is found on a snowboard, with bindings for each foot. Kotsenburg keeps one foot in a sport he's genuinely passionate about and the other foot in a world that's presenting all kinds of possibilities to him.

Goofy is the technical term for Kotsenburg's stance on a snowboard. Calculating is a good description of him.

"He's deeper than you think," his mother said, and she should know, having made him slow down his online studies — otherwise, he would have completed high school requirements at age 15. Prior to becoming a professional snowboarder, he read every book he could find about finance and money management.

Sure, Kotsenburg uses "sick" as his endorsement, summarizing the afternoon as he climbs into his truck after a Tribune photo shoot at Park City Mountain Resort. And he delivers some unintentionally offbeat, Spicoli-style observations such as, "The mind's a crazy thing." But spending even five minutes with him is enough to defy any such labels.

"He's one of the smartest humans I know," said Sam Taxwood, a longtime snowboarding friend. "He's a really good businessman. He knows his next move, always."

Well, not always. Impulsively executing the twisting "1620 Japan" trick that earned him the victory in the Olympics' first slopestyle competition on a course with jumps and rails in the mountains of Russia took considerable imagination and visualization skills. But then? "You never think about what happens after," Kotsenburg reflected on a sunny June afternoon during a brief stop in Park City, where he lives in a house with his brother and two other roommates.

What followed was more of a wild ride than anything he experienced on the snow. The convergence of Kotsenburg's earning the first gold medal awarded in 2014, the snowboarding image and American viewers' interest in the Games made him a sensation.

Kotsenburg was voted the Male Athlete of the Olympics in the Best of U.S. Awards and is among three Park City residents nominated for an ESPY award as Best Male Olympian, joining Alpine skier Ted Ligety and slopestyle skier Joss Christensen (the others are halfpipe skier David Wise and figure skater Charlie White).

"I think he's on his way to being an icon," said his agent, Steve Ruff.

He's already big in Washington. When the U.S. Olympians visited the White House, Kotsenburg was stunned when President Barack Obama recognized him and spoke of having watched his "chill" interviews, even before the snowboarder could introduce himself.

Yet family members and friends say he's still Sage, the same, humble guy they've always known. "If he had changed," said his older brother, Blaze, "I would have put him in line."

Taxwood said, "He doesn't act too cool for anyone."

He can act, though. His classic, deadpan delivery in the mortgage commercial on "Conan" produced lines such as "You heard me: No gnarly closing costs" and "That's one sick interest rate." The next thing anyone knew, some of those phrases were being repeated at the Summit Sotheby's International Realty office where his father, Steve, and brother work.

The family moved from Idaho to Park City when Sage was 4. Blaze stirred his brother's interest in snowboarding, which became a family passion.

Sage once was afraid of jumps, before conquering that problem by going off a 100-foot jump at age 14. He maintains a fear of heights — "Chairlifts are really scary," he said — and never got over the psychological effects of a crash during halfpipe practice in Australia when he was 15 and landed on his face.

Yet he's confident on the slopes, always inventing new tricks while refusing to conform to the judging system of the sport, which was trending toward robotic spins.

That's why his gold medal was widely heralded as a triumph for pure snowboarding, with a genuine rider succeeding in emphasizing the "style" in "slopestyle."

The prize lies on a table just inside the doorway of the home in Park City where his parents and sister watched his winning performance via video stream — each in a different room, while Blaze joined friends in Salt Lake City. "We were all just losing our minds," Blaze said.

"I'm sure the neighbors thought someone was being murdered."

No, Sage was just killing it on the slopes in Russia.

What's next? Kotsenburg's most immediate milestone is his 21st birthday, July 27. So he'll be 24 and in his prime in February 2018 when the Olympics are held in Korea, and the family is hoping for a big reunion — his 18-year-old sister, Kirra, is an aspiring U.S. snowboarder. They stayed home from Sochi, partly because their anxiety in watching him compete creates additional stress for him. But next time, his mother said, "I can relax. He's already got a gold medal."

His marketability is rising, with Ruff attributing his appeal to an "organic and real and true" image and citing the potential for some "very diverse deals" in advance of 2018. A one-hour documentary is coming this fall, chronicling Kotsenburg's 2013-14 season, including how he dealt with the stress of just making the U.S. Olympic team.

As the project unfolded, Kotsenburg figured, "No matter what happens, it'll be a cool story."

The ending is good stuff, obviously. But the most important message is a recurring theme, as Sage Kotsenburg remains the same person, from start to finish. —

Savage Kotsenburg?

The Olympic snowboarding gold medalist's given name is Sage Cullen Kotsenburg. His mother, Carol Ann, had chosen "Savage" — an Irish family name — for her third son, following Jeremy and Blaze. Her husband, Steve, argued that "Savage" sounded too harsh and abrasive, so she modified it to Sage. —

He's everywhere

A sampling of Sage Kotsenburg's appearances in 2014:

Television • "Conan," "Live With Kelly & Michael," "TMZ," "Today," "The Tonight Show," "Good Morning America," "The Late Show With David Letterman" and "Ridiculousness."

Print • GQ, Rolling Stone, USA Today.

Retail • Approximately 2 million Wheaties boxes.

 


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