KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Here's the first difference between watching the Olympics on television and watching them in person: It is devastating when someone falls down.
When a competitor crashes in an event you're watching at home, you're so removed from it that it barely registers; taken in the context of regular everyday channel flipping, you're one channel removed from a renovation project that has been overtaken by termites, or a man pretending to choose his wife on camera, or some shirtless, screaming Floridian being dragged away by cops. It's all just another FAIL.
But in person, to see someone who has worked every second of his or her life for this one moment, who has traveled across the world to achieve the only thing they've ever considered to have any larger meaning … to see it snuffed out in a half-second … well, I've just never experienced anything like it. I've seen Super Bowls and World Series and NCAA tournament games and NBA playoff games and beer softball games played by people whose lives have gone wrong, and nothing can compare to how rough it is to see losing here. The stakes are too high. There is no get 'em next year. There is only now. It just breaks your goddamned heart.
The slopestyle event was the first medaled event of these games, up in the mountains at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, and it was noteworthy to most for the absence of Shaun White, who backed out of the event he has dominated in the past. Slopestyle is a brand new Olympic event, but it has been hugely popular at the X Games for years, thanks largely to White. Basically, snowboarders are sent flying down a hill with various obstacles and jumps, and it's their job to do all sort of crazy sh-t before they reach the bottom. (At these particular Games, there's a Russian nesting doll in the middle of the course, because why not?) You have six (or so) different opportunities to show off for judges on each course, sliding on various rails for the first half with huge hills, allowing for various flips and twists and axels and all sorts of amusingly named tricks -- U.S. competitor Ryan Stassel referred to one set as "Cab Tunnel 180 Switchback 12 Back 12," which I'm pretty sure is a Peyton Manning audible -- and, at the end, six judges decide whether your tricks were more impressive than everybody else's. It's a subjective competition, one that was scrambled with White's exit.
The brutal thing about this sport is that if you screw up early on, you're already doomed … but you have to keep going down the hill. This is just the saddest thing. Imagine the Charlie Brown sad walk, except on a snowboard, moving super fast, with the whole planet watching.
Lucien Koch, a 17-year-old from Switzerland, fell on the second hill during the semifinals, and to watch him slide down the rest of the ride is to watch a man -- a boy, actually -- slowly wilt in front of you. Koch didn't have the heart to do any more flips after the first fall, so, shoulders slumped, defeated, he just slid, and slid, and slid. It is really something to watch someone slide down a hill -- an inherently exuberant activity, the giddy vice of children worldwide -- as their dreams crumble around them. Even though the hill is terrifyingly steep and the boards built for maximum speed, you still felt like Koch was just going just stop, right there, weighted down by it all.
It made you feel downright proud of Australian Scotty James, who met a similar fate with an early fall in his second semifinal final run. Dejected, he just did short, basic jumps on the next hills, knowing it was over. But then, as if realizing this was the Olympics, dammit, and you might only get to do this once in your lifetime, he revved up for the last jump like the gold was on the line. I couldn't possibly tell you what he did -- I sorta want to make up a name for it; let's go with "Hatchback Flip 360 Turn 83 Smurf Omaha 11" -- but it was amazing, and it earned one of the biggest cheers of the day. To pull off such a stunt just seconds after everything was ripped away from him … it felt heroic. His smile was as wide as if he won, and I suppose he sorta had.
Once the finals came, and the stakes were even higher, what was most surprising is how well (almost) everyone took their failures. Norway's Gjermund Braaten, with a chance to win, crashed as hard as anyone had all day, even losing one foot on his board. Stoically, he pushed himself, one-footed, off to the side, clamped back in, sauntered (as much as you can saunter on a snowboard) down the hill and even ended with a little forward flip flourish. England's Billy Morgan flopped out right before his final jump after a perfect run, but all he did was shrug and grin about it. Whaddya gonna do, ol' chap? Still, these people are not monks. Canada's Sebastien Toutant, who had mocked White on Twitter for pulling out of the event, just missed his final jump, one that almost certainly would have won him gold. He kept his face hidden under his mask, and it was impossible to blame him.
The best part about this new sport is how much camaraderie it inspires among its participants. Generally speaking, competitors not only support their opponents, they actually seem to be cheering for them. This may be part of the Olympic spirit, or at least the snowboarding spirit, but it's new to the untrained eye.
Which is why it was so thrilling to get to watch Team USA's Sage Kotsenburg win this thing.
Kotsenburg is a fun goofball -- like all these guys -- who listens to Judas Priest on runs (something it is impossible to do unironically) and whose name was constantly misspelled by media in the months before Sochi. After the run on Saturday, the Idaho-born athlete (who grew up in Park City, Utah) set a land-speed record with six "stoked"s in the span of one sentence.
Kotsenburg, the first gold medalist of these Games, is also about to become an extremely big star. (White may regret skipping this one with someone as charismatic as the 20 year-old Kotsenburg ready to step in.) With a set that was adventurous and weird and relentlessly creative, Kotsenburg, who was surprised he even made it into the finals, scored a 93.5 early in the first of two runs. His key move was something he called a "Back 16 Japan Air," a trick that he admitted he'd never even tried before. "I just do random things," he said. "That's my thing." Then he just sat and watched everybody else fall short.
No one ever quite matched him, which was funny, because watching Kotsenburg, you would have thought he was cheering for each one of them to. Slopestyle keeps the top three on the leaderboard at the finishing gate, so Kotsenburg stood there to greet every snowboarder trying to catch him with a huge smile and a never-ending supply of bro hugs. "It's not like we're bummed out when someone else does well," he said. Canada's Mark McMorris, the favorite to win the competition, ended up with the bronze medal and said that it's difficult to ever get too cocky in slopestyle because judging is so unpredictable. "You never know with those guys," he said with a smile.
Kotsenburg had never won an event before a month ago, when he won a minor event after "a megadrought" (he finished 5th in slopestyle at last year's X-Games in Tignes). So he was very used to cheering for those still competing, because he knew he wasn't going to beat them. (Before the win last month, he said he'd never won an event since he was 11, which really is a megadrought.) So he was never once negative about anything, even with the people who were trying to defeat him. In a sport as subjective as this, that sort of hyper-competitiveness we usually value in our sports is self-destructive; it's a fast track to insanity.
Ultimately, then, these guys have figured out the best way to handle losing. The way you deal with defeat, watching others grab the glory you worked so hard for, is to just accept it and move on, hoping someday you'll get your chance. Kotsenburg, Saturday got his chance.
It might break your heart to see these athletes fail. But it doesn't break theirs. That's what makes them different. That's what makes them eventually win gold medals.
* * *