Freestyle shines at Sochi 2014 OWG
KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUS - Canadian athletes lead the medal charge at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games after 10 events in the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, though incredible podium sweeps by the US men's slopestyle team and the French ski cross team proved to be two of the Games' biggest stories.
Things started off with a bit of magic for the Canadian contingent, with the sister team of Justine, Chloe, and Maxime Dufour-Lapointe all competing against each other in ladies' moguls. With Justine taking gold and Chloe the silver over powerful skier Hannah Kearney (USA) in bronze, a strong precedent was set for things to come.
Next competition saw Alex Bilodeau (CAN) do what no freestyle skier had done before, defending his Vancouver 2010 gold medal with masterful final run in what was his last Olympic Winter Games. Mikael Kingsbury (CAN) took silver, while Alexandr Smyshlyaev (RUS) claimed what would be the only medal for the host nation in the freestyle discipline, with a bronze.
Men's and ladies' slopestyle competitions were two of the four high-profile new events added to the Games program at Sochi 2014.
Dara Howell (CAN) dominated the ladies' event, transforming herself from "little Dara" (as her grandmother referred to her in a competition day interview) to the first woman to win ski slopestyle gold over Keri Herman (USA) and Kim Lamarre (CAN).
In the men's event, it was dark horse Joss Christensen (USA) of the powerful US team who was able to rise to the occasion in perfect conditions on the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park slopestyle course and outshine his more high-profile countrymen Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper to claim gold.
Aerials competition saw Belarus upset favoured Chinese athletes in both the ladies' and and men's competitions.
On the ladies' side, it was veteran jumper Alla Tsuper (BLR) using what she would later announce to be the last aerials attempt of her career to land the best jump of the competition, ending her career on the highest of highs with a gold medal against some tough competition.
Xu Mengtao (CHN) and Lydia Lassila (AUS) were both unable to land their super final jumps, and had to settle for silver and bronze respectively.
In the men's competition, in was Anton Kushnir (BLR) taking the torch from his compatriot Alexei Grishin and winning Belarus' second consecutive men's aerials gold with the best jump of his life in a stacked super final. David Morris (AUS) was able to claim Australia's first men's aerials medal after a long run of ladies' success, while Jia Zongyang (CHN) scored a bronze for China.
Men's and ladies' ski halfpipe were the other two events that made their Olympic Winter Games debut at Sochi 2014.
Men's competition was plagued by the most difficult weather of any competition, with rain, sleet and sticky snow slowing the pipe down and forcing the men to scale back their runs due to a difficulties with amplitude.
Still, the best man may have won, as top-ranked David Wise (USA) proved most capable in the tough conditions, taking gold despite a strong second-run challenge from Mike Riddle (CAN) and some good skiing by Kevin Rolland (FRA). Riddle took silver while Rolland was awarded the bronze.
Ladies' pipe event saw Maddie Bowman (USA) put down one of the most progressive women's runs ever seen, with huge spins and solid amplitude earning her ski halfpipe's first Olympic Winter Games gold medal.
Veteran Marie Martinod (FRA) won silver while high-flying Ayana Onozuka (JPN) took bronze in a competition that saw nearly every skier down the pipe paying homage to late freeskiing pioneer Sarah Burke (CAN) with words and gestures in the finish area.
The men's ski cross event will likely go down as one of the most entertaining competitions held of any at Sochi 2014. With myriad minor crashes, utter unpredictability, and a French sweep of the podium lead by the charismatic Jean Frederic Chapuis, the event truly had it all.
Arnaud Bovolenta and Jonathan Midol took the respective silver and bronze medals for the first podiums of each of their careers in the biggest stage of them all.
While the the French sweep was the obvious highlight of an incredible men's ski cross race, the moment that will be played over and over after the Games actually came in the quarter finals, when Victor Oehling Norberg (SWE), Jouni Pellinen (FIN) and Egor Korotkov (RUS) all crashed simultaneously after the final jump.
The three athletes slid across the finish line on their sides, with Korotkov reaching out an arm to claim the heat in one of the most dramatic photo finishes of all time.
Last event of the freestyle programme in Sochi 2014 was ladies' ski cross. Less wild than the men's competition but just as thrilling, the ladies' event saw 21 year old Marielle Thompson (CAN) best teammate Kelsey Serwa (CAN) for the third gold-silver performance of the Games for the Canadian freestyle team.
Anna Holmlund (SWE) had the bronze handed to her when Ophelie David (FRA) fell in the middle of the course, ending in heartbreaking fashion the French skier's bid to win every possible piece of ski cross hardware.
With those final two medals, Canada finished top of the board in freestyle skiing, with four golds, four silvers, and a bronze, for nine total medals. The USA finished with three golds, two silvers, and two bronze for seven medals, while Belarus' two aerials golds had them in third on the medal table.
Sochi 2014 was something of a coming-out party for freestyle skiing, with consistently entertaining competitions and a progressive, youthful vibe providing highlight after highlight for fans old and new around the world.
Some true stars were born at Sochi 2014, and with the full gamut of the five FIS Freestyle events now familiar to millions across the globe, the future of freestyle skiing is looking brighter than ever.
The full freestyle medal table can be found HERE.