Sage Kotsenburg will never forget meeting U.S. Olympic snowboard medalists Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas just after they swept the 2002 Olympic halfpipe podium at his home mountain of Park City, Utah. He was just 9 years old at the time, but the moment sparked a dream that he was finally able to realize when he won gold in the Olympic debut of snowboard slopestyle in Sochi, Russia, this past winter.
This week XGames.com caught up with him in Colorado, where he was signing autographs with a gold Sharpie for more than 100 campers at Woodward at Copper Mountain. Every one of them, he knew, could be standing on top of a podium ahead of him within a few years.
ESPN: I know you've already done a couple hundred interviews since winning the Olympics ...
Sage Kotsenburg: The media tour and everything that comes after the Olympics, that's all stuff I never thought about. You go there and you want a medal, obviously, and like everyone else you really want gold, but you don't think about all that stuff that comes after because you don't really care, you know?
So I just got thrown into it really fast. The night after I won, my agent was like, "Jimmy Fallon wants you, you're bro-ing down with Conan, you're doing 'Letterman,' you're doing 'Good Morning America.'" And I'm like, "Dude, we're still in Russia! I haven't even seen my parents yet!"
It was a really fun, crazy, out-of-this-world roller-coaster ride and I had such a blast doing it, but I wasn't prepared for it at all.
Before the Olympics you had been vocally critical of the direction competitive slopestyle had been heading. It must have felt like a victory for style in snowboarding to do it the way you did it and come out on top.
I didn't go to the Olympics to win or podium. I just wanted to show snowboarding in its best form and do my best there, and it ended up being the best of both worlds.
The coolest thing for me was when I finally got back home and started hearing from everybody -- all my friends, and a bunch of snowboarders -- how stoked they were. You definitely could go to the Olympics and win and come home and have the snowboard community be like, "That was wack. We still hate the Olympics." But instead everyone was just really stoked, which got me so hyped.
Were you surprised by how strongly the judges responded to some of the more creative elements in your run?
It wasn't like, "I'm going to do this run because this is what I think the judges will want to see." No. It was, "This is the run I want to do because it's the run I think could win and should win." And so to go in and have the stars align, at that time, on the biggest stage in the world ... it was so crazy.
There was a lot of controversy around Shaun White pulling out. Did you have the same thought in mind when you first rode the course, that maybe it wasn't safe enough?
I don't envy Shaun at all. While I was there soaking it all in and riding pow and trying to learn some Russian and just having the time of my life, he was surrounded by security and cameras. He was trying to three-peat in pipe, he was the biggest name coming into the Winter Olympics, and that's a lot of stress to deal with. He dealt with it his way, and ultimately you have to respect that. It's like, whatever, you can't hate him.
I might have made that same call if the Olympics would have been two years ago or even a year before. I used to look at courses and get really negative: I would pick out one bad thing I didn't like about a course and really dwell on it. That's been one thing my coach has really helped me out with over the last three years.
When we checked out the course, and it was really big, he reminded me, "For weeks you've been saying you hope you don't show up to Russia and find the course is too small." It was true: We asked for a big course, and they built a really big course. Who could complain?
There were definitely some problems on the first practice day, but the shapers wanted to have the sickest course, and they listened to our feedback. By the day of semifinals and finals, it was perfect. From day one I never had a bad thought in my mind. It was just like, "Here we are at the Olympics. This is crazy. Let's do this."
Part of what the world got to see about snowboarding was you and your competitors hanging out at the bottom of the course cheering for each other.
You break it down, and we're some of the most competitive people you'll ever meet. But then you get a bluebird day, it's the first time slopestyle's in the Olympics, and everybody's killing it and having such a good time and doing such gnarly runs ... you can't help but be stoked for all of your friends.
The real win was that everyone was so stoked on how slopestyle snowboarding was portrayed there. It was the dream scenario, and honestly it could have been so much worse. Just look at the halfpipe event in Sochi: It was raining, the pipe sucked, everyone was so bummed. For us the course was amazing, the weather was amazing, everything was top-notch. You couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the Olympics.
What's been the best part of all this new fame?
Having kids come up to me is awesome, which is why I love coming to Woodward and other camps. Kids come up to me super timid, not knowing what to say. I remember being that kid not long ago.