A Chat with a Gold Medalist

Snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg tells TFK about winning the first gold of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games

Feb 24, 2014 | By Kelli Plasket
SCOTT HALLERAN—GETTY IMAGES

Snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg poses with his gold medal from the Sochi Games.

Before the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg, 20, had never attempted a 1620 Japan air mute grab, which involves spinning four and a half rotations while grabbing the toe end of your board with your front hand and pulling it just behind your back. He first tried it on his final run during the Olympic debut of men’s slopestyle, on February 8. His risk paid off—he became the first official gold-medal winner at the Sochi Games and the first-ever gold medalist in the debut men’s event.

Kotsenburg—who grew up near Park City, Utah, where mountain events at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games were held—began snowboarding at age five. He took lessons with his older brother, and they both tried joining a team, but eventually found they preferred more freedom on the slopes. “I did anything my older brother wanted to do,” Kotsenburg told TFK during a phone interview a few days after winning his gold medal.  “We made some friends through the local [snowboard] shop and starting riding with them.” Read on for more.

TFK:

How did it feel to stand on the podium to receive your gold medal?

KOTSENBURG:

That was a feeling I’ve never experienced before. Just being up there and having the medal around my neck and watching the flag go up—the anthem was playing and people were going nuts in the crowd with American flags. There was just so much support. I know everyone says it, but I can't even put it into words. It's just unbelievable.

TFK:

This was a debut event. Why do you think it's important that slopestyle be a part of the Olympic Games?

KOTSENBURG:

It’s very different from a lot of the sports in the Olympics, like figure skating and bobsledding. We have our own world. We have snowboard magazines and snowboard movies, we have contests, and people ride snowboards just for fun. It's what kids are doing now, and it's really fun and you can really just express yourself through snowboarding. I think that is the coolest part of it. There’s no blueprint to snowboarding.

TFK:

What's your advice for kids interested in trying out snowboarding?

KOTSENBURG:

For kids who are just getting into it, I'd say just grab a couple friends and go let loose and go have fun and ride at your own level. That's one thing I always tell kids. You can sometimes get so anxious to try learning new tricks or going down runs you shouldn't be going down. You will get there one day. You just have to keep it slow and have fun with it.

TFK:

What gave you the confidence to try the 1620 Japan air mute grab first on the Olympic stage?

KOTSENBURG:

That's a question everyone’s been asking, and I just keep saying, “Why not?” It's something that I thought of that day. I knew if I landed it, I could definitely do really well. I talked to my brother and the U.S. team coach. They were both just like, “Yeah, go, send it, have fun. You are at the finals of the Olympics. You have nothing to lose.”

TFK:

Do you remember the first trick that you mastered as a kid?

KOTSENBURG:

The first trick was an indie grab, which is your back hand in between your bindings on your toe-side edge. I was just randomly grabbing it. I didn't know what it really was. [My brother and I] started getting into snowboard movies, so that's where we learned all of our tricks. Then, the Olympics came to Salt Lake City in 2002, and we had no idea that snowboarding was really that big. We watched it and just got even more stoked on snowboarding. I was like, “Whoa, these guys are doing unreal tricks. All I can do is an indie grab.”

TFK:

Once you started competing, did you ever have a moment where you wanted to give it up?

KOTSENBURG:

I never wanted to give up snowboard. It is my whole life. I don't go 10 minutes without thinking of snowboarding or a trick. There have definitely been times when I wanted to stop competing and just go snowboard for fun. I just wasn't really into contests that much. It got so boring. People were doing the same stuff every contest, and I had done the same run for two years in a row. Then I started making up grabs and doing different crazy tweaks with tricks and that's what really got me back into competing. That's the beauty of snowboarding.

TFK:

How much does the support of your family help?

KOTSENBURG:

I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my brother starting to snowboard, and my mom and dad supported me every step of the way. They would get me out of school early to go snowboard. There was a point where we were traveling so much that I had to be homeschooled. I am so lucky to have them.

TFK:

This can be a dangerous sport, and the Sochi course made headlines for being extra challenging. How do you get past any fear before a run?

KOTSENBURG:

Every sport is pretty dangerous. In snowboarding, you take necessary risks. That's why I tell kids, “Don't do anything out of your comfort zone.” You want to make sure if you are doing a new trick, you feel confident in it and you want to do it, and you are not doing it to win when you don't feel comfortable.  You have to visualize the trick and know what you are really doing, so I'd say start small and build big.

TFK:

Your teammate Jamie Anderson won the debut women’s event in slopestyle. What did you think of her run?

KOTSENBURG:

I was so stoked when Jamie came down her run. She landed her second run, and I just jumped up. I always get stoked watching her, but this was just another level. I couldn't have been any happier for her. 

TFK:

Will we see you in four years at another Olympics?

KOTSENBURG:

I would like to come back. We'll see. That's a long ways away. I just like enjoying the moment and definitely will be aiming to come back because I had a great time at this one.