No feeling in the world compares to winning an Olympic medal, especially if it’s the first Olympic gold ever awarded in your sport.
Unless you’re Joss Christensen, the placid-looking freestyle skier who won gold in the inaugural ski slopestyle event at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Before his Olympic competition even started, Christensen experienced a series of high and lows that included, he said, “”one of the more stressful weeks of my life” and “the happiest day of my life.” Now 25 years old, Christensen is looking to return to the Olympics for a second time–hopefully in slightly calmer fashion.
To automatically win a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, a freestyle skier has to make two podiums over the course of five Olympic qualifying events. Leading up to Sochi, Christensen made one–the very final competition, in his hometown of Park City, Utah. But his Olympic hopes were still alive, because while three out of four spots on the team were locked up based on the qualifying events, there was one discretionary spot open.
“It was very stressful,” Christensen remembered. “They named three out of four after our last qualifying event and I just had to sit back and wait until [the team coaches] made the decision.”
Later that week, Christensen was driving to the X Games and had just entered an area with no cell reception when he received a call from his personal coach. When he got service a few hours later, his coach called again and asked Christensen to pull over.
“I was really stressed out. I knew we were going to get a call no matter what, if you made it or not,” he said. “I didn’t know if that was going to be bad news or good news. And he let me know that I was part of the first-ever slopestyle Olympic team, so it was a pretty crazy moment.
“It was definitely one of the more stressful weeks of my life. But it was pretty awesome to go from so many lows and highs in a week.”
The highs got even higher when he arrived in Sochi. On the first day of Olympic competition, Christensen’s childhood friend Sage Kotsenburg won gold in the men’s snowboard slopestyle event.
“It kind of started everything out great for me,” Christensen said. He remembered thinking to himself, “‘today was the happiest day of my life when my best friend won the Olympics,’ not knowing what was going to happen next week.”
Then came February 13, 2014, the day of the ski slopestyle final. “And we just had perfect weather—no wind, no clouds in the sky, and it was 45 degrees,” Christensen recalled.
The Olympic final “was definitely the best competition of my life,” he said. “The course was so good in Sochi. Jumps were really big, rails were really nice, there were a lot of options. And the level of skiing that day was the best our sport has seen so far. So the fact that I was able to top the podium that day was huge for me.”
He went into the competition with an arsenal of skills that included a trick he learned earlier that week in practice. “It was a trick I wanted to do but hadn’t done it before. So I learned it three days before the contest.”
“So if it wasn’t for that trick,” which he successfully executed during his final run, “I wouldn’t have won.”
Christensen shared the podium with two other Americans, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper. It was the third time in Winter Olympics history that U.S. athletes claimed all three medals in the same event.
Christensen is keenly aware of how different his life would be if he never made that Olympic team.
“If I didn’t make the Olympics, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to keep supporting myself to ski,” he said. “I was thinking about going back to school and maybe seeking a different route. But the Olympics provided me with so many opportunities. I was very lucky that I could keep it going.”
Now he’s able to be “the pro skier I’ve always wanted to be.” Since Sochi, he’s been able to compete around the world with the help of his sponsors. “Everything just worked out luckily, financially, I’m able to take care of my family and get everything going,” he said.
Christensen won his first X Games medal, a silver, in 2015 and took gold twice at Grand Prix events in 2015 and 2016. And as he heads into the next 12 months before the PyeongChang Olympics, he’s hoping to avoid a nerve-racking last-minute selection to the Olympic team.
“I definitely feel more confident this time,” he said. “Last Olympics I felt like I was just a little bit below the top four in the U.S. trying to work my way up. Right now, I definitely feel that I am in the top for the U.S. guys. I’ve had three really good seasons since the Olympics. Just got to keep it going.”
But he’s not getting ahead of himself. “You never know, a lot can change in one year,” he added. “So I don’t want to be too confident and jinx myself.”
Christensen has notched the best results of his career in the last few years despite a string of injuries. Since Sochi, he’s broke his hand, his wrist, his hand again, then suffered a knee injury coupled with bad timing in early 2016.
He was in PyeongChang, South Korea, competing on the Olympic slopestyle course for a test event competition. “I was semi-injured at the time, so it wasn’t the best experience for me,” he said. “I got dead last in the contest, which was hard because I was the World Cup leader coming into the event. All I needed to do was to do pretty well I would have won the overall.
But I had a pretty injured knee and didn’t even finish my first run so it was hard. It was a hard experience. It was good to go and see the lay of the land and kind of feel out the climate. It was fun, it’s a beautiful place.”
Soon after, he had to end the season early due to a separated collarbone.
“That was kind of the icing on the cake for that season. I had to call it quits. I was trying to rush through too many injuries and not heal.”
He took eight months off from skiing to get surgery for his knee, but says he can’t complain despite the missed training time. “I feel really strong, really healthy” now, he said. “It was definitely the right time. If I had to go through that this [upcoming] summer, I don’t know how… I’d be pretty stressed.”