Maybe only the Ohio State football team knows what it’s like to go from underdog to the favorite with a target on your back faster than Sage Kotsenburg.
Kotsenburg was a longshot to make the US Olympic team at Sochi in 2014, but he ended up not only making the team, but also winning the team’s first gold medal of the Games, in the snowboard slopestyle. It was the first time the event had been held at the Olympics.
After becoming a national hero in Russia, Kotsenburg is back in Aspen this year, competing in both the snowboard Big Air competition and, of course, the slopestyle. After taking silver in the 2012 Winter X Games, the 21-year old will try to add an X Games gold to his trophy case next to the Olympic medal.
Kotsenburg’s return to Aspen comes after a three-week media tour for him, in which he appeared on numerous talk shows and gave countless interviews. He says he’s happy to return to the home of the X Games.
“It’s always so good to be back here, as much as it’s the craziest week, usually, of the year, there’s just an ambience about Aspen, that’s so kick back and relax,” said Kotsenburg, who was dressed as though he was prepared to hit the slopes immediately after our talk, which it turned out he was. “Once I get here I just kinda go with the flow.”
Although Kotsenburg is able to relax, he certainly isn’t taking the X Games lightly. He comes to compete, which he says is an easier mindset to have than at the Olympics where media obligations are much more laborious.
“For us [the athletes], X Games is the biggest contest in snowboarding,” the Idaho native said. “It’s more of a snowboard contest compared to the Olympics. The Olympics, you’re kind of a little tiny particle in a giant lake. Whereas here, you know all the athletes, you know all the people running the event, you’re friends with them.”
Kotsenburg got his sixth Winter X Games started on Friday night with the snowboard Big Air competition. Although he’s taken bronze in the event before, he struggled this year, failing to make the finals.
“I was trying this trick that I had just learned in practice, I’ve done cab double cork 1440s before, but not with the grab I was doing it with,” said Kotsenburg, who discusses the competition with the air of someone who felt like he missed an opportunity to medal. “I knew that I could easily make finals with it. I got a little too stubborn and I should’ve gone with another trick after I didn’t land it two times. So I was happy with it but I was also bummed.”
Despite failing to reach the podium, Kotsenburg was clearly a fan favorite at the event, drawing the loudest cheers from the crowd as he rode back up the hill past the fans. He says he believes that comes from his desire to be fan friendly and personable with everyone he meets.
“I just kind of think of myself as a snowboarder, I guess and I think people like that,” he said. “When I was a kid I met snowboarders that I tried to kind of copy their mentality, where I was a kid and I would wanna take a lap with this guy and he didn’t even know me and he would make an effort just to hang out with me and I thought that was so cool because when you can relate to your heroes or someone that you really look up to, it was a big part of me becoming a professional snowboarder.”
The precocious Kotsenburg, who has been snowboarding since he was five, squirmed a little in his seat when he was referred to as the “favorite” to win the slopestyle competition on Saturday night.
“It’s terrible, man,” he says with a laugh. “I always don’t like being in that spotlight, I just kinda…I do my thing, sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. I just normally do the runs that I think are cool and I don’t really care if they get judged well because that’s not why I snowboard. I just like putting together a run I think would be the raddest one to watch.”
Kotsenburg will become the first slopestyle competitor to win both Olympic gold and X Games gold if he takes home the top prize on Sunday. Regardless of whether he comes out on top, however, it’s clear he’ll give the fans a show to remember.
Photo Credit: Getty