Joss Christensen stood on the other side of the world and faced the question with which so many champion athletes struggle. When is the right time to move on?
Christensen, the surprise and dominant gold medalist in the first Olympic men’s ski slopestyle event in 2014, decided to step away from competing while in New Zealand at the beginning of last season.
“Between injuries and maybe not having as much excitement and love for the competition side of the sport, I felt like, before I ruined skiing completely for myself, before I started to hate it, I wanted to move on,” he said this week, “and expand into other areas of skiing that I think we all kind of dream of when we’re growing up.”
He still skis, but not in the X Games or on the international World Cup level. Christensen is devoted to SLVSH, a freeskiing competition series and content channel that he co-founded after the Sochi Olympics with fellow athlete Matt Walker. A full-length film was in the works before the pandemic forced a pause.
“Hopefully, this will be the start of a new career for me, a new part of skiing for me,” he said.
His athlete bio lists his last event as the 2019 New Zealand Winter Games. Result: DNS, or did not start.
In recent years, Christensen was recognizing fewer and fewer skiers at contests.
In New Zealand, he was, at 27 years old, the oldest skier on the start list by seven years before he withdrew. Injuries, including five right knee surgeries, dogged him since Sochi, and kept him from qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team to defend his title in PyeongChang.
“Sat back and definitely thought about whether or not this is what I wanted to be doing,” Christensen said, noting he would need to gain entry to and fare well in lower-level events to raise his international standing. “It seemed like a lot of work that maybe was unnecessary for me at the time. It was kind of a point in my career where I really had to sit back and make a decision on the spot whether or not I wanted to really go for it.
“I saw there were maybe some better things I could be doing with my time and to help out my sponsors and my personal brand.”
Christensen reflected fondly on an Olympic experience that nobody saw coming, one that’s helped him make a career out of skiing.
Seven years ago, he finished eighth and 12th at the first two Olympic qualifying contests. But he won the last qualifier.
U.S. Ski and Snowboard officials chose Christensen for the last spot on the four-man Olympic team, passing over the two most recent world champions in Alex Schlopy and Tom Wallisch, both Winter X Games gold medalists. Christensen was eighth in his lone X Games start at the time.
Once in Russia, Christensen learned in practice a switch triple cork 1260. Friends back home in Park City saw video and bet money on him. He went from underdog for a medal to the favorite after his two runs in qualifying produced the two highest scores. The final was later that day.
“I had my top five [before the Olympics], and he probably wasn’t in that at that time,” said Nick Goepper, who came to Russia as the two-time reigning X Games champion and briefly roomed with Christensen. “Then I do remember, as the competition progressed throughout the day, watching his runs, sort of thinking like, Joss is the dark horse. Or Joss is really surprising everybody and really skiing on a level that I’ve never seen him ski at before.”
It carried into the final four hours later. Christensen’s first-run score was the highest in the field. His second run was a victory lap and also a better score than anybody else posted.
Christensen was the most dominant skier in Sochi, and arguably the most dominant athlete overall, event for event.
“One of those days where everything lined up perfectly,” he said this week. “A lot of times, if things aren’t going too well for me, I try and think back to that day and what I was doing right to get myself into such a good mindset.”
Christensen dedicated the surprise victory to his father, who died of a congenital heart problem six months earlier. He was joined on the podium by bronze medalist Goepper and silver medalist Gus Kenworthy, making it the third-ever U.S. sweep of a Winter Olympic event.
In the days that followed, the three men, all 22 and younger, did joint interviews in Russia and back in the U.S. Kenworthy also made headlines for adopting stray dogs in Russia. Goepper put on a “The Bachelor” style contest on social media with the hashtag #IWantToDateNick.
“It’s three people sharing the spotlight instead of one, so you’re trying to fight for your time in front of the camera that then reflects back on your sponsors and your supporters,” Goepper said. “I thought it was extremely strange and awkward a lot of the time, and I felt kind of bad for Joss sometimes, because I could see totally that situation he was in.”
Christensen had the gold medal but less media experience than his teammates.
“I want to push skiing, but no one [in the media] wanted to talk about skiing,” Christensen, who is friends with Kenworthy and Goepper, said on a recent podcast with former competitive freeskier Simon Dumont. “That’s one of my biggest regrets of that whole situation was going into the whole media tour not prepared and not aware of the image I was creating for myself.”
Goepper listened to Christensen’s podcast while driving with his wife.
“My wife, not knowing Joss as well as I do, was like, ‘Wow, Joss is so nice, and I can’t believe he won the Olympics based on how he came off in the interview,'” Goepper said, “because he wasn’t talking about winning at all costs.
“He was just kind of being his goofy self. He’s a different character than you would think the typical sports champion would be.”
Christensen’s passion for skiing endures. He became a skier at age 3, inspired by films like “Teddybear Crisis” and “Ski Movie 3 – The Front Line.” He wanted to be in the ski magazines, in the movies and knew that the best route was through winning contests and building sponsors.
So with SLVSH, Christensen wanted to open opportunities for skiers not fortunate enough to travel to competitions to earn ranking points, or to camps to learn new tricks. He wanted to help the next Christensen — a skier who didn’t have the most attention or the best resume — a chance to seize an opportunity.
“I will never retire from skiing,” he said. “That’s pretty much my whole focus and main passion my whole life.”
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