Colby Stevenson soars to silver medal in Olympic big air
BEIJING — The car accident happened nearly six years ago, and Colby Stevenson stores it there, in the past. Stevenson cannot avoid the effects of nearly dying on a darkened Idaho road. It shapes his outlook. It stares back at him every time he looks in a mirror. But placing the crash behind him is an occupational requirement. Stevenson skis off ramps made of snow and performs acrobatic wizardry while falling some 40 feet out of the sky. He does it with a titanium plate in his head.
"I don't want to think about my skull being all bashed in," Stevenson said. "Because I might be like, ‘Oh, this is kind of risky.’ "
On Wednesday afternoon, Stevenson entered Big Air Shougang unlikely to make the podium and tumbled on the first of his three jumps. He then executed a trick called a nose butter left triple 1620 Japan, three flips and 4½ spins dappled with technical flourish. He never had tried it, not even in practice. But it became the linchpin of a silver medal performance, the first of two jumps that vaulted Stevenson from near the bottom of the 12-skier final to near the top, behind only a surpassing, 21-year-old Norwegian named Birk Ruud.
"I’m totally on a cloud," Stevenson said. "It hasn't quite set in yet. It was just a miracle I ended up on the podium today, honestly. It was a miracle I was able to land that trick the way I wanted to. I’m just super grateful for everything. It feels like it's been my whole life working up to this moment."
Stevenson waited and watched after his final jump. Alex Hall, regarded at the start as the best U.S. medal hope, attempted a double 2160 — the two-flip, six-rotation feat of insanity that won him an X Games title two weeks ago — but couldn't land it and finished sixth. No one else could catch Stevenson, either. When the wait ended, Stevenson removed his helmet and goggles and still kept the scar on his forehead concealed behind a green headband. The world could not see the jagged and discolored U right between his eyes.
Hall's spill protected Stevenson's silver and enabled Ruud to ski the final run gripping a Norwegian flag in his hand, already assured victory after two flawless runs. Ruud aims to win three gold medals at his second Olympics, his first since his father, Oivind, died of cancer in April.
"We all got something," Ruud said.
Stevenson could attest. On May 8, 2016, Stevenson was driving home to Park City, Utah, late at night from Hood River, Ore., where he had won a freestyle skiing competition. On Interstate 86 in rural Idaho, Stevenson fell asleep at the wheel. He woke up in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones, no idea where he was or what had happened.
Stevenson's truck veered off the road and flipped eight times, caving in the roof and nearly killing him. Stevenson fractured his skull in more than 30 places and broke bones in his jaw, ribs and neck. A gaping wound opened between his eyes, just above his nose. Doctors induced a coma for three days. If his brain had swelled even an imperceptibly small margin more, Stevenson probably would have suffered permanent brain damage.
A surgeon implanted a titanium plate in his skull. Doctors wondered whether he would walk out of the hospital and doubted he would ski again. Stevenson thought his career was over, but he was determined to recover. His parents had put him on skis when he was 14 years old, and he had built his life around the sport. In the first days of his recovery, Stevenson could only hobble to the bathroom in intense pain. Eight months after the crash, he won his first World Cup event.
Stevenson spoke earlier this week of having moved beyond the car crash, seemingly motivated by the sensible desire not to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to him. But Stevenson could not help but have his life molded by an incident that could have stolen his ability to ski or walk — or worse.
"Your character is really defined in those tougher times in your life," Stevenson said. "That's what defines who you are. It's your outlook in life, you know? Even though you’re dealt bad cards, it's how you’re going to look at that in a positive light and move forward and still push toward your dreams even though they seem so far out of reach. You just stay true to what you love."
Freestyle skiing brought him Wednesday to the first men's Olympic competition of its kind, one day after China's Eileen Gu had won the women's gold and become an international sensation. Stevenson had reached the pinnacle of freestyle skiing but not because of big air. Teammates nicknamed him "Slopestyle God" because of his artistic dominance in that event. Stevenson had never landed on a big air podium.
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Still, Stevenson entered Beijing with optimism in big air, having learned new tricks this year, including one with 4½ spins after a takeoff called a nose butter. Rather than soaring straight off the jump, a skier spins 180 degrees on the lip — as if spreading butter with the nose of the skis.
"If you don't go off the nose of your skis, you’re risking catching your edge on the takeoff or getting pretty sketchy," said American Mac Forehand, who finished 11th. "He's so good at doing nose butters. I kind of idolize him for that."
In Monday's qualifying round, Stevenson landed a 1620 after a nose butter takeoff with two vertical rotations while executing a Japan grab, holding his left ski with his right hand wrapping underneath his leg. I could definitely do three flips with that one, he thought. He asked Hall whether he could pull it off, and Hall ensured him he would have enough height off the jump to squeeze in another flip.
Stevenson had a day off to see for himself, but "I didn't have the balls to do it in training," Stevenson said. And so he entered Wednesday's final determined to perform a trick he never had done before.
"I’ve been doing it my head for a long time," Stevenson said. "I had good faith I was going to land it."
On his first try, Stevenson nailed the takeoff and the rotations but barely bobbled and tumbled when he landed. Though he failed to record a competitive score, nearly pulling it off only enhanced his belief. On the second jump, trying the trick for the second time in his life, Stevenson nailed it. Judges awarded him 91.75, placing him squarely in the podium mix.
"He threw it all out on the comp," Hall said. "So epic."
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On his last jump, Stevenson had a decision to make. He knew he could land a switch left double 1800 Cuban — ride down the hill backward, flip twice while spinning five times and grab the very tip of his ski — and position himself for a possible podium. He also had a bigger trick in mind, one that might allow him to challenge Ruud. As Stevenson clicked his boots into his skis at the top of the hill, he still was deciding which jump to attempt.
"Just do the trick you know," his coach, Skogen Sprang, told him.
Stevenson received a 91.25 for his double 1800, giving him 183.00 points. After the eight remaining riders failed to surpass him, the Slopestyle God had become the big air silver medalist.
Stevenson hoped younger skiers could see in him an example that injury, no matter how serious, can be overcome. He has moved beyond his past, but on the day he won an Olympic silver medal, he wanted others to see him standing on the podium, scarred but strong, and take a lesson from it.
"The body heals," Stevenson said. "That's a gift."
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