When snowboarding superstar Shaun White withdrew from the inaugural slopestyle competition at the Sochi Winter Olympics, the criticisms flew fast and furious.
Canadian competitors Max Parrot and Sebastien Toutant infamously took to Twitter, wondering if White really wanted to compete in an event that he might not be the favorite in. Indeed, their Canadian teammate, Mark McMorris, battled through an injured rib to compete at Rosa Khutor, and he was considered one of the favorites, especially in White’s absence.
Perhaps though, the man known as the “Flying Tomato” did some good for his sport, even without competing.
The reason for that, of course, is that it opened the door for the lesser known athletes to take over the Olympic spotlight. To be fair, unless you’re a snowboarding follower, most of these guys are as familiar to you as a 1620 Japan Air with a Mute grab.
That’s the move, dubbed the “Holy Crail,” that 20-year-old American Sage Kotsenburg unleashed on the course that was the center of Olympic drama even before the opening ceremonies. Capping off a crazy run, Kotsenburg upset the heavily favored Canadian team to take the first gold medal of these 22nd Winter Games.
It’s the type of story that only the Olympics can bring out. Kotsenburg wasn’t hyped as a top gold medal contender coming into Sochi, and now he’s one of the biggest stars of a fast-growing sport.
Kotsenburg is everything that’s good about this sport. He hadn’t even decided to include the four-and-a-half rotation trick in his run until minutes before he dropped in, and now he’s a champion on the world’s biggest stage. Fans both casual and die-hard were looking for nobody but White, and the show they got without him still surpassed all expectations. As it turns out, where one star was missing, new ones were born.
Kotsenburg doesn’t compete in the halfpipe, so his Olympics are over early. He plans to take it all in, cheering on Team USA in as many events as he can get to. He’s earned every bit of it, and we’ll look forward to seeing him back on the world stage in the years to come.