"It all ends today for slopestyle, but remember what snowboarding is about, snowboarding does not end today. Should be super fun!!" tweeted Team USA's Sage Kotsenburg just a couple of hours before the Olympic men's snowboard slopestyle semifinals were set to begin in Sochi, Russia.
He was right on a couple of fronts: Kotsenburg was the only American to advance into the finals Saturday morning, meaning the Olympic-debut dream for teammates Chas Guldemond and Ryan Stassel came to an abrupt halt on the hard snow of Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. The field of 20 riders (Adrian Krainer of Austria bowed out before the event due to a heel injury) was to be narrowed to the top four, who now will meet the eight top-finishing athletes from Thursday's qualifiers.
While Stassel and Kotsenburg's first runs landed them both in qualifying spots—ahead even of a still-injured Mark McMorris (CAN)—the second round of attempts saw only Kotsenburg strong enough to keep his second-place position, with Yuki Kadono (JPN) and Seppe Smits (BEL) stepping it up and knocking Stassel out of contention. Creativity and pure joy are Kotsenburg's hallmarks, and he brought them out in perfect form during his second run in particular, where he showed off the Holy Crail—a trick the 20-year-old Park City, Utah, native invented this season—a stylish hand drag off the cannon feature, and a big backside 1260 Japan grab off the second booter that was sandwiched between a pair of 1080s.
His family couldn't be prouder. Brother Blaze sent this tweet directly after the semis concluded:
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-partner=”tweetdeck”><p><a href=”https://twitter.com/sagekotsenburg”>@sagekotsenburg</a> so proud of you. Literally crying on the phone with mom and dad. Couldnt be more stoked for what you stand for my man. Love.</p>— Blaze Kotsenburg (@blazekotsenburg) <a href=”https://twitter.com/blazekotsenburg/statuses/432058486231277568″>February 8, 2014</a></blockquote>
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Meanwhile, the pressure on McMorris to perform was palpable; he's been the gold-medal favorite for the event for months, but with his broken rib from X Games Aspen still a factor and his vocal disappointment with the judges' scoring of his runs in qualifiers in the air, the easy confidence of both rider and crowd was not quite there in his first run. McMorris scrubbed the landing of his bottom-jump triple cork and made his way to the end of the course with head in hands. However, true to the nickname his brother, Craig, who's commentating the event for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, gave him, Mr. Clutch pulled out a clean series the second time around. He switched up his line in the rail section from what he'd done in qualifiers, then capped it off with a backside 540 to touch over the Russian nesting doll, a switch frontside double cork 900, a frontside double cork 1080, and then the money trick: a big, beautiful backside triple cork 1440.
Billy Morgan of Great Britain, who was the first slopestyle rider ever to drop into the course at the Olympics on Thursday, brought it with great form Saturday morning; he was the only rider to throw a triple off the first kicker in the line and he walked with the highest score of the event, a 90.75. Not originally considered a medal contender, Morgan's caught the eye of the judges and his fellow riders and might be a serious threat to the podium when the finals begin.
Men's snowboard slopestyle finals start at 12:45 p.m. Saturday (Sochi time) and can be watched in real time by U.S. viewers at NBCOlympics.com.
Men's Snowboard Slopestyle Finals Rider List*
Billy Morgan (GBR)
Sage Kotsenburg (USA)
Mark McMorris (CAN)
Yuki Kadono (JPN)
Ståle Sandbech (NOR)
Peetu Piiroinen (FIN)
Sebastien Toutant (CAN)
Jamie Nicholls (GBR)
Max Parrot (CAN)
Roope Tonteri (FIN)
Sven Thorgren (SWE)
Gjermund Braaten (NOR)
*Not in official start-list order
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