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


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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Football takes significant step in Olympic push

Flag Football
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football took another step toward possible Olympic inclusion with the IOC executive board proposing that the sport’s international federation — the IFAF — be granted full IOC recognition at a meeting in October.

IOC recognition does not equate to eventual Olympic inclusion, but it is a necessary early marker if a sport is to join the Olympics down the line. The IOC gave the IFAF provisional recognition in 2013.

Specific measures are required for IOC recognition, including having an anti-doping policy compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency and having 50 affiliated national federations from at least three continents. The IFAF has 74 national federations over five continents with almost 4.8 million registered athletes, according to the IOC.

The NFL has helped lead the push for flag football to be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Flag football had medal events for men and women at last year’s World Games, a multi-sport competition including Olympic and non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Football is one of nine sports that have been reported to be in the running to be proposed by LA 2028 to the IOC to be added for the 2028 Games only. LA 2028 has not announced which, if any sports, it plans to propose.

Under rules instituted before the Tokyo Games, Olympic hosts have successfully proposed to the IOC adding sports solely for their edition of the Games.

For Tokyo, baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were added. For Paris, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were approved again, and breaking will make its Olympic debut. Those sports were added four years out from the Games.

For 2028, the other sports reportedly in the running for proposal are baseball and softball, breaking, cricket, karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, motorsports and squash.

All of the other eight sports reportedly in the running for 2028 proposal already have a federation with full IOC recognition (if one counts the international motorcycle racing federation for motorsports).

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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