SOCHI - For the U.S. team, the Sochi Games signified an end of an era. Goodbye, ice queens. Hello, flippie hippies. See you later, pucks and sticks. Nice to meet you, slopes and rails.
As 17 days of competition came to a close Sunday, this much was clear: The face of the Winter Olympics no longer wears skates. Twelve of the USA's 28 medals came from freestyle skiing and snowboarding, including six of nine gold.
The U.S. Olympic team had never won a medal on every day one was awarded in the Winter Games, and through 14 days in Sochi, the Americans were poised to do that. But the men's hockey team failed to show up in Saturday's bronze medal game, losing to Finland 5-0.
If only the kids in baggy pants with a language all their own had competed in the Games' final days, perhaps the USA could have gone out with more of a bang. Instead, Russia ended this cold war with a flourish — sweeping the podium in the men's 50-kilometer cross-country ski race Sunday and winning gold in four-man bobsled to secure the top spot with 33 overall medals and 13 golds.
For decades, figure skating was the marquee event of the Games. In Sochi, the U.S. men and women figure skaters had their worst collective finish since 1936. Speedskating has been the USA's most successful winter sport. But the short-track team left with one medal and the long-track team exited empty-handed, complaining about their suits.
In contrast, the Americans dominated the action sports events — slopestyle skiing and snowboarding and halfpipe skiing — that made their debut. When the next Winter Games is held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, Americans are again expected to be strong in the extreme sports. If more events are added to the program — perhaps big air and a team snowboard cross event — the U.S. medal haul likely will grow as well.
"When you look at the impact that adding the sports has had on the Winter Games, it's made the Games more popular from a broadcast standpoint and for the people who are here," U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said.
The tone was set on the opening weekend when snowboarders Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson won gold and introduced most of America to slopestyle, which features riders performing tricks on a series of structures (like rails and boxes) before flying over huge jumps. Even for Blackmun, it was an introduction.
"These were not athletes I'd been following every day in the three months leading into the Games," Blackmun said. "To see these young kids with so much personality winning medals and shining is fun."
Falling in love
U.S. officials are expecting interest in action sports to continue because of the success in Sochi. "The reason they're going to become popular is because America loves winners and falls in love with these youthful kids," said Mike Jaquet, chief marketing officer of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. "These sports will naturally produce the type of personality that America loves."
Unlike the highly wound types who tend to populate figure skating or the fierce competitors who make speedskating more of an individual sport than a team sport, those doing sick tricks on boards and skis tend to be easygoing.
The kids in the new sports act more like friends than competitors. Take American Devin Logan, 21, who won silver in the debut of slopestyle freeskiing. After the event, she was asked if she was upset over a mistake that denied her a chance at gold. "It felt great," she said. "I had a penguin slide at the end. I was stylin'!"
"I am so happy to be up on the podium with my two friends," Logan said about the Canadians who won gold and bronze. Then they went out to party together.
Given that the sport has been gaining in popularity over the last decade, industry experts expect the explosion to continue.
The freeskiing movement has helped reverse the ski industry's declining sales. Last winter in the USA, twin-tip ski sales continued to soar and bring in $55 million of the $2.6 billion snowsports gear industry, according to SnowSports Industries America.
Unlike other Olympic sports, extreme ones don't disappear between the four-year cycle. The Winter X Games is held yearly and broadcast on ESPN's networks. Plus there's Dew Tour and USSA Grand Prix events.
The extreme sports are more accessible, too, as kids can try them out on ski vacations or in their backyards.
Or you can grow up in a state without huge mountains and make it to the Olympics. All you need is snow, even just a little.
Slopestyle bronze medalist Nick Goepper grew up in southeastern Indiana. He built a set of ski rails in his backyard and trained on AstroTurf and a PVC pipe on the slope.
Try finding a speedskating oval in town. And there's no such thing as a biathlon vacation.
Unlike Summer Olympic sports in which the USA excels such as swimming and track, skiing doesn't have to rely on colleges as a feeder program. The USSA closely works with resorts across the country to help develop aspiring Olympians.
The Winter X Games has served as the scouting combine for the Olympics, introducing what's cool before it becomes trendy. "It's been awesome to watch slopestyle get a broader platform," said Tim Reed, ESPN's senior director of sports and competition and content strategy. Of course, slopestyle has long been one of the most popular sports at the X Games.
In June at the international ski federation's annual convention, the process to add new sports to the Olympic program will pick up steam. The U.S. federation is pushing for big air and team snowboard cross events for 2018, but the movement also has the support of other countries that have had success in freestyle sports such as Canada, France and Switzerland.
"We will see growth, and that's a good thing, because it makes the Olympics more relevant. The IOC is trying to create events that the public relates to, and particularly young people. It's a win-win," USSA CEO Bill Marolt said.
But the last word of these Games should belong to the two athletes who had the first word.
The day after Kotsenburg won slopestyle gold, he said he was "stoked," "super stoked" and "absolutely stoked" to compete in the Olympics — all in the same breath. "I think the world needed to see slopestyle. Because snowboarding is a different sport than figure skating or gymnastics. We're all really different and individual people, and this is what the kids are doing nowadays," he said.
Anderson, who centered every one she met in Sochi with talk of meditation, yoga and incense, was asked to explain the growing popularity of slopestyle and why people are drawn to it. "Because it's fun," she said, making the obvious sound revelatory. "Snowboard slopestyle brings a new, fresh energy to the Olympics."
And for the U.S. team, a slew of medals.
Contributing: David Leon Moore