Joss Christensen, storybook Olympic champ, rotated on the other side of the world

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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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John McFall, Paralympic medalist, becomes first parastronaut in Europe

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The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and later won a Paralympic 100m bronze medal in 2008, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally … All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who has been selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

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Ilia Malinin in familiar position after Grand Prix Finland short program

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Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple Axel in his free skate to win his first two competitions this season. Less known was that the 17-year-old American had to come from behind to win each time.

An at least slightly injured Malinin looks up in the standings again after the short program of his third event, Grand Prix Finland. Malinin had erred landings on two of his three jumping passes in Friday’s short, where quad Axels are not allowed, then said he had a left foot problem, according to the International Skating Union.

“I’m a little bit injured, I’m playing it safe, protect it to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse,” he said, according to the ISU.

He tallied 85.57 points for second place, which is 3.39 fewer than leader Kevin Aymoz of France going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin, the world junior champion ranked No. 1 in the world in his first full senior season, merely needs to finish fourth or better (perhaps even fifth) to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, which pits the top six per discipline in the world in a preview of March’s world championships.

Grand Prix Finland concludes with all of the free skates on Saturday.

GRAND PRIX FINLAND: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Friday, world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium led the women’s short with 74.88 points, edging Mai Mihara of Japan by 1.3. Hendrickx and Mihara are in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. World champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, South Korea’s Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito already have spots in the Final.

The world’s top ice dance couple this season, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, improved on their world-leading rhythm dance score by tallying 87.80 points. They lead Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by 6.87, with both couples in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini topped the pairs’ short program by 4.3 points over Americans Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia. The Italians rank fourth in the world this season behind three teams that aren’t in the Finland field but will be at the Grand Prix Final, including world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.

Smirnova and Silanytsia are competing in their lone Grand Prix this season after withdrawing before Skate America, making them ineligible for Grand Prix Final qualification. Their short program score ranks fourth among American pairs this season, putting them in contention for one of three spots on the team for worlds, to be decided after January’s national championships.

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