Zhangijakou, China • Considering all the things Colby Stevenson has come back from, a low score in the opening round of the Olympic men’s big air event wasn’t much of a challenge.
Six years ago, the Park City skier fell asleep at the wheel while driving a friend back to Utah after a competition. The truck he was driving flipped eight times and Stevenson woke up in the hospital days later with a shattered skull. Bed-ridden and broken, it appeared his brief career as a professional skier was over.
But then his neurologist cracked open the door. Stevenson might be able to ski again someday, he said.
“I still had a lot of balance issues. It was going to be a long road, but I had that hope,” Stevenson recently told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Skiing was my life and what I wanted to do and nothing was going to stop me from getting back to it.”
Stevenson exhibited that same brand of determination Wednesday on his way to earning the silver medal in the inaugural Olympic men’s big air ski final at Shougang industrial park.
Stevenson crashed — more of a skid really — on his first of three attempts down the roughly 150-foot ramp that some say looks like a stiletto. Stevenson had never put down the trick, called a nosebutter left triple 1620 Japan, in competition. Still, he was saddled with a 34.75 out of 100, nowhere near the top.
Rather than accept his position, though, Stevenson scratched his way back.
The 24-year-old threw the same trick on his second attempt. This time he landed it, which gave him a 91.75 and put the pressure on his final trick. Needing a huge score to come within arm’s reach of leader Birk Ruud of Norway, he threw a switch left double 1800 Cuban.
“As I was clicking into my skis I was still trying to decide what to do for my third jump,” he said. “I decided to do one that I was comfortable with.”
It was the right call. His 91.25 score launched him into the silver-medal position with eight skiers to go. But only one who followed could best him: Ruud.
“I kind of knew Colby had that in the bag,” said fellow American Mac Forehand, who placed 11th.
Among the skiers trying to surpass Stevenson and Ruud was another Park City athlete.
Alex Hall, who is ranked No. 2 in both big air and slopestyle on the FIS Freestyle World Tour and qualified for the final in second place, was sitting in sixth heading into the last run. He needed at least a 95.5 to win Team USA’s first gold medal of the Beijing 2022 Olympics.
Unlike Stevenson, who chose a more comfortable trick for his finale, Hall decided to go big.
“I figured if I played it safe, maybe I’d get an OK score and maybe sneak into second or third. But then who knows, anything could happen knowing how talented everyone is,” he said. “So I figured I just, you know, go for it and try my best and whatever happened happened. And I think I would have been more bummed if I played it safe and things didn’t end up panning out. So I just send it and hope for the best.”
He attempted the same jump that won him the X Games gold in Aspen, Colorado, a little more than a week prior. Called a switch left double 2160, it has six rotations, one more than anyone else attempted Wednesday. But without a solid landing, it wasn’t enough to replace his first-round score of 68.25, and he ended up eight.
Ruud’s final run was a victory lap. He had consistently put down the highest scores of the inaugural Olympic competition, and Wednesday was no different. He opened with the competition high of 95.75 and added a 92 on his second run. His third he undertook with a Norwegian flag in hand.
Waiting at the bottom, Stevenson cheered him on, amazed that his first time on a big air podium resulted in him bringing home the first Olympic silver medal in the event.
“Totally on a cloud. It hasn’t quite set in yet,” he said. “It was a miracle that I landed on the podium today, honestly. Super grateful. It feels like I’ve spent my whole life leading up to this moment.”
He’ll have a chance to add to his cache next week in slopestyle, which begins Monday at the Genting Snow Park in the mountain village of Zhangijakou, north of Beijing.
All three Americans in the big air final will compete, as will Nick Goepper, the Salt Lake City skier who is looking to add a gold to the bronze and silver medals he already has in the event. Stevenson, the 2020-21 world champion, will be a favorite in that event.