Pyeongchang, South Korea • There will be no shortage of massive airs and stylish grabs as dozens of riders vie for a shot at a slopestyle medal on the first day of snowboarding at these Olympic Games. There however will be one expected but noticeable absence.
Sage Kotsenburg, the reigning Olympic champ, long ago decided not to show up.
Four years ago in Russia, as the Park City native stood at the top of a similar course in Russia, a man at the start offered him some friendly advice.
“Have some fun there, kid.”
“Will do,” Kotsenburg replied.
And he did have fun winning on the biggest stage and basking in his newfound fame. For a while anyway. Then something changed.
That’s why Sage Kotsenburg isn’t in South Korea. He’s finally back to having fun again.
If you want to find the slopestyle medalist, you’d have to go to the Italian Alps this week.
“The Matterhorn is right behind me,” Kotsenburg said this week during a phone interview, in awe of his surroundings.
He is in Italy. Last week it was Austria. Last month it was Japan. But it is not Pyeongchang. Not for these Olympic Games anyway. Not that he couldn’t earn a spot if he wanted it. Just that it didn’t feel right. It didn’t sound all that fun.
“I got kind of confused for a couple of years after Sochi,” Kotsenburg said. “… I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. It made me want to compete more. Like maybe I should compete against these guys to prove to them I’m the best. It kind of puts you in this weird place, and it wasn’t really me after a while.”
So he asked himself a simple question.
What’s going to make me happy?
He still loved being on the mountain. He still loved to ride. So Kotsenburg rode his wave of Olympic success to a place he wanted to be: the backcountry.
“I grew up in Park City, which is surrounded by some of the best mountains in the world,” he said. “That’s where I got this kick to do backcountry snowboarding.”
Backed by sponsors, Kotsenburg has been able to spend his time traveling with his own film crew. Many are friends he grew up snowboarding with in Utah. He has filmed parts for multiple films, including a collaboration with Icelandic snowboarder and former X Games champion Halldor Helgason. He will be in Colorado later this week, hocking a new cereal for General Mills (Blasted Shreds! In two flavors: Peanut Butter Chocolate and Cinnamon Toast Crunch!). If the snow picks up, he’d like to get back to Utah. They plan to make a video on Grizzly Gulch, a favorite spot in the Cottonwood Canyons.
As he talked on the phone this week, Kotsenburg was stopped multiple times by people who had seen him riding on the mountain earlier that day.
“Let’s get a photo!” Kotsenburg suggested.
“Sick, man! Sick!” he said afterward. “Thank you guys. Maybe I’ll see you on the mountain tomorrow! Grazie!”
“Honestly, coming from the bottom of my heart, the coolest thing that came out of the Olympics for me was just trying to spread happiness to people,” Kotsenburg said, continuing his interview. “It’s so rad when people come up and say, ‘I saw your run and got into this because of you.’ That hits home for me. That was me when I was a kid. I met some of the guys who podium in Salt Lake and I still remember that day.”
Kotsenburg is affable and laid back but now carving out the life he wants. He is Jeff Spicoli with a gold medal and a five-year plan. And as the Olympic Games kick off, he is the envy of his peers.
“That’s exactly what I want, to be honest,” 17-year-old Red Gerard said in the run up to his first Games.
Park City skier McRae Williams remembers seeing Kotsenburg last year at a big air event in New Zealand. While Williams was “shaking in my boots hitting this massive jump, doing a triple on an icy landing”, Kotsenburg took it easy, enjoying himself.
“I’m sure there are some guys out there that really enjoy the heat of competition and battling it out,” the first-time Olympian Williams said. “For me personally, I feel like I can relate with Sage. Competing is not the fun side of it. It’s definitely stressful, nerve-wracking, not something we necessarily enjoy doing.”
Kotsenburg no longer is competing, but he doesn’t consider this a retirement from the sport.
“I think I’m a better snowboarder today than I was four years ago,” he said.
But someone else will win the gold this week. Kotsenburg will be watching the competition and believes Gerard, with his youth and creativity, has a chance to follow in his footsteps as a dark horse medal winner. Kotsenburg, however, won’t be making the trip himself. He’ll be somewhere else — and he’ll be having a blast.