Sage Kotsenburg is in a situation not unfamiliar to Olympic champions. Kotsenburg became the biggest star in slopestyle snowboarding by winning a surprise gold in Russia, but as he said in February, it was only the second contest he could remember winning since age 11.
The 21-year-old got back on his snowboard in Austria last week, riding for the first time since July. His first competition since the Olympics will be an Air & Style event in Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Stadium the first week of December.
What if Kotsenburg goes back to the pre-Olympic Sage, the rider who qualified for the Olympics behind Shaun White and finished 13th and 15th at the 2013 and 2014 Winter X Games?
Even second place, Kotsenburg’s best-ever finish at a Winter X Games, will not meet many’s expectations.
“I think some people, for sure, think that way,” Kotsenburg said at a New York hair salon recently. “I don’t think that way. Snowboarding is a way tighter community than most.”
Kotsenburg gave examples. An insane run is an insane run regardless of placement. If he landed a trick for the first time — as with the “Holy Crail” at the Olympics, 4 1/2 rotations while grabbing the board behind his back — but had an error elsewhere, it could still be a success.
Winning isn’t everything is a disposition common in snowboarding, one Kotsenburg gained a greater understanding of while listening to one of the greatest riders of all time, Kelly Clark.
Clark was favored going into Sochi to win halfpipe gold. She came away with bronze. Clark, who has won more than 60 competitions, told Kotsenburg that third-place finish marked one of the greatest contests of her career.
“She was having a bad practice [in Russia], couldn’t land anything and she came together in her Olympic [final] run and landed, it’s pretty cool to see,” Kotsenburg said. “That’s a lot of drive.
“Second place can mean so much more than first.”
No rider knows the feeling of second place at the Olympics better than Danny Kass, who won silver behind Ross Powers in 2002 and Shaun White in 2006.
Kotsenburg and Kass spoke at length this summer about Kotsenburg’s potential bid to defend his gold medal in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.
More pressure the second time, Kass said, but there should also be more fun.
“If you don’t do [well] again, I can imagine it’s going to be maybe a letdown for you,” Kotsenburg said Kass told him, “but you can’t let that take over what you’ve done in the past. You’ve got the gold medal. Go back to win another one, but enjoy it while it happens.”
Kotsenburg was one of the stars of the U.S. Olympic team White House visit on April 3 and then mellowed in the summer, cruising around his Park City, Utah, home and spending plenty of time surfing in California.
“I miss being in the competitive state of mind, the adrenaline,” Kotsenburg said. “I’m excited to get back into it.”