Meet the new poster boys of U.S. skiing
NEW YORK -- It was a little after 9 a.m. on the set of "Good Day New York," the New York City Fox affiliate's morning show, and 22-year-old Gus Kenworthy stood alongside the show's two buffed and polished co-hosts. Next to them, a towering man in a purple, green and gold lamé blazer wore a matching top hat, and a slightly smaller but no less bedazzled man named Hans held some sort of Jack Russell/Chihuahua mix named Tito. Kenworthy smiled awkwardly as Hans placed Tito on the floor and began barking at the dog.
"Hup! Hup! Hup!" Hans said, and Tito promptly started doing backflips. Hans rewarded him with a little piece of cold hot dog. Rosanna Scotto, one of the co-hosts, clapped delightedly and broke in.
"OK, Gus! Hup! Hup!"
Kenworthy launched into a standing backflip. Hans rewarded him with a little piece of cold hot dog. Kenworthy gamely popped it into his mouth.
"What did you just give him?" exclaimed co-host Greg Kelly. "This is one of our greatest athletes!"
If you ever wondered whether or not winning an Olympic medal would turn your life into a circus, there's your answer.
This was the first stop on Day 2 of the media tour that Kenworthy embarked on alongside 22-year-old Joss Christensen and 19-year-old Nick Goepper, a week after the three of them swept the podium at the inaugural Olympic ski slopestyle competition in Sochi, Russia. On Thursday, the trio knocked down "Today" and "Late Show With David Letterman," but Friday's schedule was mercilessly wall-to-wall until 7 p.m. Christensen and Goepper arrived Wednesday, a day earlier than Kenworthy, who appeared more than a little jet-lagged.
"Good Day New York" moved on to preview the weekend's Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey stand at the Barclays Center, so Goepper was whisked away to an appearance on "HuffPost Live" while Christensen and Kenworthy headed into a drizzly New York morning to shoot bits for an X Games "World Of X" show. They emerged onto the sidewalk and were immediately met with autograph seekers. Christensen whipped out an athletic sock and squeezed his gold medal into it.
"Gotta keep it fresh," he said with a grin. It was T-minus 60 minutes until they were due at Fox Business.
On Feb. 13, the three skiers climbed their respective podium steps with personal stories ready-made for the Olympic media machine. There was Christensen, a discretionary last pick by U.S. team coaches, whose struggles in qualifying were due, at least in part, to the fact that he was still mourning the loss of his father last fall. Silver medalist Kenworthy had become an instant Tiger Beat sensation with a well-publicized effort to save a family of adorable stray puppies from Vladimir Putin's alleged dog destroyers. And bronze medalist Goepper was a classic snow sports underdog story, coming from the vertically challenged town of Lawrenceburg, Ind.
While the mainstream press lapped up these easily digestible human-interest stories, a more interesting sports story was being cooked up. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, a 110-year-old organization, was being led by a bunch of first-time Olympians competing mostly in first-time Olympic disciplines while some of its biggest names stumbled through the first week of the Games.
Bode Miller finished a disappointing eighth in downhill after dominating training runs (though he would come back for bronze in Super G), while Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson secured golds for the men and women in snowboard slopestyle. Shaun White failed to lead a strong men's snowboard halfpipe team to even a single spot on the podium, while Kaitlyn Farrington shook rookie jitters to capture gold in the women's event. Alpine skier Julia Mancuso and reigning world and Olympic moguls champion Hannah Kearney faltered, taking bronzes, while Devin Logan disrupted Canada's bid for a podium sweep in women's ski slopestyle with her silver.
Across the board, the new Olympic medalists carried themselves with an effortless cool that might be expected at an X Games party, but stuck out in the hypercharged atmosphere of an Olympic Games.
"In our sports, new contests pop up every year," said Goepper. "This happened, it was cool, another big competition. We were mingling with these other Olympians that train their whole lives for one appearance, or they've been to three or four Olympics and that's their entire sport. I got the vibe that a lot of them were jealous, because [for us] it was just like another event."
A little before 1 p.m., the Slope Sweepers swept onto the set for "Sports Illustrated Now," where they were the second Olympic entourage of the day. Jamie Anderson was scheduled to appear after them, and they exchanged greetings and congratulations before comparing notes on the media gantlets they'd been running. They ticked off the names of major news and TV organizations as if they were recalling a checklist of gear before heading up to the mountain.
As the boys settled in with the host, they deftly volleyed answers to questions they'd been asked countless times in the past week. This started with standard sports boilerplate like, "How does it feel?" and "What went through your mind?" before progressing through each of their personal storylines and favorite memories from Sochi. Kenworthy told a nice story about watching his score come in, realizing his buddy had just won gold, and then watching Christensen's victory lap. Christensen talked about a powder day he got just before the Games began. Goepper wistfully remembered discovering his favorite yogurts were free in the athlete cafeteria.
The tour started to veer off the rails at the next stop, when the crew packed into a tiny green-screen studio where Entertainment Weekly attempted to run the boys through the first-ever EW.com Dating Games. Kenworthy broke into an impressive version of "Build Me Up" by The Foundations -- the karaoke song he swore his date better be down to sing with him.
When Christensen took his initial laps through the Olympic slopestyle course, what struck him most wasn't the supposedly dangerous jumps -- it was his fellow competitors. They wouldn't talk to him. "I was trying to talk to the European kids, who we're usually pretty good friends with, and it was hard to generate a conversation. Gus and I talked, and it was like, 'Dude, I don't know if this is going to be good. It might be too much.'"
After everyone settled in, things mellowed out. The ski slope competitors had nearly a week of sessions on a course that -- aside from a few vocal dissenters -- most of them found pretty fun. Meanwhile, all around them, serious, focused athletes were going about their business, following strict workout regimes and nutritional programs and generally bringing a level of intensity none of them were familiar with. "The bobsled guys, you could mistake them for Marines -- super gnarly, rigid dudes," Goepper said.
The culture clash represented by slopestyle's inclusion on the Olympic program was best illustrated by Bob Costas' now-infamous comment that the discipline was "'Jackass' stuff that they invented and called Olympic sports." In the deluge of coverage following Kotsenburg's victory, it was hard to find a writer or host who avoided obligatory "dude" references or oblique pot jokes, all of it emblematic of the fact that the mainstream press doesn't really know what to do with these athletes any more than the athletes know what to do with the Olympics -- other than, you know, win them.
Still, all the teeth gnashing and turmoil that had accompanied the growing presence of action sports in the Olympics contained within in it one powerfully equalizing element.
"It really hit me after landing my run in the finals," Kenworthy said. "Everyone was chanting 'USA! USA!' and you look down and there were flags being waved everywhere. It was a sense of pride, not only for the run you just landed, but also for the country you did it for."
Christensen told a story about walking through a subway station in Midtown Manhattan and being stopped by strangers. "People were, like, 'Congratulations!' Coming up and shaking our hands, recognizing us without our medals around our necks." He shook his head, equal parts baffled and moved by the moment.
"Cheat it to the camera, guys!" the producer shouted. "It's not like sports! You can cheat!"
The cramped EW studio had been traded for the far roomier environs of VH-1's "Best Week Ever" green-screen studio, but extra space was quickly snapped up by writers, camera operators, PAs and the guy running the teleprompter, who implored everyone to give him a clear view of the action.
Kenworthy spun off to talk puppy rescue with Anderson Cooper, leaving Christensen and Goepper to ham it up with "BWE" host Joanna Bradley. The diminutive Bradley was an Olympic-level ham who skewered the standard interviews the boys had been suffering through with sarcastic questions about girls, and an "Ab Off," in which she inspected both skiers' washboard stomachs before declaring, "Holy s---. You're both fat as f---."
The boys played it up and then played it off, breezily moving through the day's obligations with good humor despite the fact it'd been nine hours and they weren't done yet.
After a 70-block battle through Friday evening traffic, the group reunited in the offices of Seventeen Magazine at nearly 7 p.m., close to 12 hours since the guys first stumbled from their hotel into the maw of the New York media machine. Kenworthy was punchy enough that he cruised the offices wearing a unicorn mask he found on a wardrobe rack. The editors were smitten enough that they wanted to know what he was doing later.
When the ski slopestyle final began after a week of Olympic competition, the U.S. had earned nine medals -- tied with Russia and trailing Norway, Canada and the Netherlands in the medal count. The podium sweep -- just the third in U.S. history, after men's figure skating in 1956 and men's snowboard halfpipe in 2002 -- catapulted the U.S. into second, tied with the Netherlands. The freeskiers weren't just inspiring fans back home; they reinvigorated the medals race.
The morning after their appearance marathon, Christensen, Kenworthy and Goepper traded stories about their Olympic experience over coffee in the lobby of Midtown's swank Le Parker Meridien hotel. The three seemed wary of overinvesting in the significance of their accomplishments. They're clearly proud to have represented their sport, their towns and their families on such a grand stage, but they also conveyed a pragmatism bordering on skepticism.
"With the inclusion of all the other countries, and the U.S. only getting four spots, it wasn't truly all the best guys," Goepper said. "There were four more Americans who could have easily podiumed."
"We've been doing this sport for a really long time at this level, and for the most part people don't really care," Kenworthy said. "All of a sudden, just because of this one event, it's like, 'Oh, we support you so much.' Where were you, forever? I hope the fans we've gained aren't just with us for one contest."
When the conversation shifted to the hockey games and Alpine races they watched in Sochi, the mood lightened. Turned out, they're fans, too.
They discussed the downhill, and how bummed everyone watching in the athlete lounge was when Bode Miller dropped from contention. They were shocked to learn the event is a one-run affair and the greatest U.S. Alpine skier of all time wouldn't get a second shot to redeem himself.
Kenworthy fished his phone out of his pocket and read something. "We're not winning the medal count anymore," he said.
It was the second-to-last day of the Olympics, and Russia and Norway were both having monster days. The conversation quickly turned to an examination of the remaining events and what, if anything, the U.S. could do to regain the lead.
They agreed that a bronze in men's hockey, a Ted Ligety medal in slalom and a medal in the four-man bobsled were the only realistic expectations. Unfortunately, the remaining schedule was stacked with Russian-, Norwegian- and Canadian-friendly events like speed skating, figure skating and cross-country skiing. Did they pay attention to things like the medal count prior to Sochi?
"Not really, no," Kenworthy admitted, before diving back into number crunching. "But what do we have left, actually? Girls' figure skating? Curling's over, right?"
"There's the four-man bobsled. We got a medal in the two-man," Goepper pointed out, helpfully.
Four years from now, Christensen and Kenworthy will be 26 -- old men in a sport where green bones are the most important equipment you can have. Goepper will be 24, but none of them is banking on a long-term Olympic career. Still, with a little more than 24 hours remaining in the Games, they couldn't help but root for the U.S. team as if it was their own ... which, of course, it was.