ZHANGJIAKOU, China – For going on two decades, action sports have been a reliable source of medals for the U.S. team.
Since freeskiing joined the Olympic program in 2014, the Americans have won at least 35% of the U.S. medals in the events made popular by the X Games.
Led by historic misses, those teams won just seven medals in halfpipe, slopestyle and big air. That accounted for just 28% of the Americans’ 25 medals, with the USA walking away with its fewest golds and fewest medals from the freeskiers and snowboarders in the past three Olympics.
“Look, I would love to have won more medals, but if we put it in the X Games sports base, I think we’ve had a lot of performances I’m incredibly proud of,” U.S. Ski & Snowboard President and CEO Sophie Goldschmidt said. “And I think also, it’s been a real mix – some older athletes that have been here a few times and some young ones beginning to come through too, so I’m excited about that pipeline and what’s ahead of us as well.”
To be sure, there have been bright spots.
The Americans won two gold medals in snowboard cross but that is no longer an X Games event.
The men’s freeskiing team accounted for five of the medals. Alex Hall won gold in slopestyle, while Nick Goepper medaled in the event for a third time with a silver here.
David Wise and Alex Ferreira got back on to the Olympic podium together for a second consecutive Olympics, taking silver and bronze, respectively, in the halfpipe.
Men’s snowboarders claim no medals in halfpipe, slopestyle, big air
In freeskiing, nine other countries won medals here, the highest total since it was added in 2014. That was helped by the addition of big air for freeskiing, with that event joining the program for snowboarding four years ago.
“It’s what we’ve been hoping to foster because we’ve been so dominant in these new school sports,” Wise said. “We also kind of want to share this sport with the world. … So I’m excited to see other countries get excited, get involved in our sport, in action sports in general. I think throwing your body through the air on a halfpipe is one of the coolest things you can do. It’s actually not necessarily a negative thing. It’s a positive thing. It just means more countries are getting involved in cool sports.”
That certainly held true.
Freeskier Eileen Gu won three medals and snowboarder Su Yiming won two for China – the most ever for the country in either sport. Led by a gold medal in the halfpipe from Ayumu Hirano, Japan won three snowboarding medals, its most ever.
To some degree, those came at the cost of the U.S. team.
The seven medals for freeskiing and snowboarding comes four years after those sports accounted for 11 of the USA’s 23 medals in Pyeongchang.
Men’s snowboarding came away with no medals for the first time since the sport was added in 1998. The snowboarding team had four top-five finishes, including defending gold medalists Shaun White and Red Gerard finishing fourth in halfpipe and slopestyle, respectively.
“Where we haven’t had quite the performance that we would have expected or had in the past, that’s where I’m going to be honing in my focus,” said Goldschmidt, who started with U.S. Ski & Snowboard in October. “Shaun White, what an amazing story. Another fourth place, he was so close to medaling. But I think it’s a little bit of an end of an era. We had some others in that comp that did pretty well, but we want to make sure that pipeline’s growing. That’s traditionally been a discipline that we’ve been pretty dominant in, so I think that’s an opportunity.”
Goldschmidt also said the organization would look at big air, where the U.S. snowboarders earned no medals and finished no better than fifth. And it would look to add depth in women’s halfpipe.
Japan is investing in the progression of snowboarding
Chloe Kim won a second consecutive gold medal in the halfpipe, but she was the only American to make the final. Maddie Mastro, who had been the only one in the world to beat Kim in the past two years, failed to make the final after she couldn’t put down a clean run in qualifying.
Rather than having several medal contenders, as that team has had in the past, there’s a wide gap between Kim and the rest of the field.
“There’s a reason for the big gap, I think. Superpipes are not easy to come by these days,” said Todd Richards, snowboarding analyst for NBC. “There’s only a few of them in the United States. Honestly, a lot of the ski resorts are not putting their money into even making smaller pipes so that kids can learn and love and want to get into the halfpipe.
“Why does Japan have such a strong program? It’s because Japan is investing in the progression of snowboarding. So they’re making the superpipes. They’re giving these kids options. If you don’t have options, you can’t learn.”
Goldschmidt said the federation is hiring a chief of sport to oversee its high-performance departments and coordinate athletic development over its many disciplines. It will also do an assessment of the teams’ performances at these Games.
“I think we’ve had some very strong performances, but I have ambitions to see us get the medal count up for the future Games,” she said. “The Olympics is a high point every four years, but it’s about what’s happening month in, month out and on an annual basis with the World Cups. You need to see that progress. You can’t suddenly turn it on every four years.”