Thank your stars and stripes for freestyle skiing

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The International Olympic Committee made a landmark decision three years ago when it added women’s ski jumping to the Winter Olympic sports program.

It’s easy to forget that in that same announcement, the IOC postponed a decision on adding men’s and women’s ski and snowboard slopestyle for the Sochi Olympics. An IOC sport director said slopestyle needed “further feasibility study.” Proponents had to wait nearly three more months before the IOC finally green lighted slopestyle as the final sport for the 2014 Winter Games.

Thank your stars and stripes that it did.

The final slopestyle event of the Sochi Olympics concluded Thursday with the third U.S. sweep of any event in Winter Olympic history.

Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper bagged the medals. The U.S. jumped to 12 medals overall, including four golds. Half of those medals belong to slopestyle skiers and snowboarders, including three of the four golds.

VIDEO: See how U.S. dominated event

“It’s one thing to be out here and get on the podium with Gus and Joss, but it’s another thing to think about the big picture and think about the advance in medals that we’ve gotten for the U.S.,” said the bronze medalist Goepper, who was bidding to become the first individual Winter Olympic champion born in Indiana.

There was some concern over the U.S.’ performance in the first five days of the Olympics. It sat in fourth place overall with nine medals going into Thursday.

In 2010, the U.S. won 37 medals over 16 days at the Vancouver Games, the greatest overall medal haul in Winter Olympic history. Of course, the Vancouver Olympics featured more events than any Winter Olympics ever (as does Sochi), so it didn’t come as a huge shock.

To compare the U.S.’ performance in Sochi to only Vancouver would be short-sighted. The U.S. and Canada (the gold-medal leader in Vancouver) had an advantage over European powers Germany, Norway and Russia being closer to home.

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A fairer way to compare the U.S.’ early performance in Sochi would be to put it against other recent non-North American Olympics. So let’s do that.

  • The U.S. won nine out of 96 medals in the first five days of the Sochi Olympics. That’s 9.3 percent.
  • In 2006, the U.S. won 25 out of 252 total medals at the Torino Olympics. That’s 9.9 percent.
  • In 1998, the U.S. won 13 out of 204 total medals at the Nagano Olympics. That’s 6.4 percent.
  • In 1994, the U.S. won 13 out of 183 total medals at the Lillehammer Olympics. That’s 7.1 percent.

The U.S. was right within its range of non-North American Olympics after five days in Sochi. There shouldn’t have been alarm.

On the flip side, the U.S. would plunge down the medal table if these were the 1994 Sochi Olympics. In addition to the six slopestyle medals, the U.S. had won three others in events that weren’t part of the Olympic program 20 years ago.

The remaining three were all bronze medals – Erin Hamlin (luge), Hannah Kearney (moguls) and Julia Mancuso (super combined). (Note: moguls didn’t join the Olympics until 1992, and super combined was adapted from the combined in 2010).

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Veteran medal threats in traditional Olympic sports have faltered, from speed skater Shani Davis (eighth in the 1000m) to Alpine skier Bode Miller (eighth in the downhill) to cross-country skier Kikkan Randall (eliminated in the quarterfinals of the individual sprint).

Yet the new kids, rookie Olympians, have been surprisingly spectacular.

Gold medalists Sage Kotsenburg, Kaitlyn Farrington and Christensen needed until the final weekend of Olympic selection events to earn their spots on the U.S. Olympic Team in January.

VIDEO: The science behind Christensen’s golden run

None were considered the top U.S. medal threats in their events.

Yet Kotsenburg won the first U.S. medal in Sochi in snowboard slopestyle on Saturday, an event best known as the one Shaun White skipped.

Farrington soared above Olympic champions Kelly Clark and Hannah Teter and world champion Arielle Gold to win snowboard halfpipe gold Wednesday.

Then came Christensen, the biggest nail-biter of them all in Olympic qualification last month. Christensen won the final Olympic selection event in his hometown of Park City, Utah, after being unable to ski for two weeks because he cut open his knee.

Even that victory wasn’t enough to clinch the final Team USA spot, though.

U.S. officials had to choose from among Christensen and the last two world champions in ski slopestyle – Alex Schlopy and Tom Wallisch.

They went with the hot hand in Christensen, whose form reached a boiling point under warm, sunny skies this week.

Christensen posted the top qualifying score in the morning Thursday and the best first run in the afternoon final. He had clinched gold before his final run, which became a victory lap that would have won gold as well.

“The stars lined up for me,” Christensen said.

And for the U.S., which jumped from fourth to second in medals, one behind Norway.

“We were kind of falling behind in the medal count,” Christensen said. “Hopefully that can bring us up a few and the U.S. can keep dominating.”

The slopestyle athletes will have no say in that. Their fruitful Olympics are over, but their impact won’t be forgotten.