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Olympic Freestyle Skiing

U.S.' Christensen honors late father's dedication with slopestyle skiing gold

Photo: Simon Bruty/SI

Joss Christensen's slopestyle skiing gold medal was part of a U.S. sweep of the podium in the event's Olympic debut.

SOCHI -- To understand what Joss Christensen’s gold medal means -- part of a U.S. sweep in men's slopestyle skiing -- go back a year or two and view him through his father’s binoculars.

J.D. Christensen was born with a hole in his heart, and the heart eventually ended his life, as he always knew it would. But he fought it off for 67 years.

Toward the end, J.D. would try to follow his son Joss on the slopestyle skiing circuit, but he was weak. Doctors told him he would feel better if he lived at sea level, but he refused to leave Utah. Sometimes he didn’t have the energy to walk up a hill to watch his son. He walked anyway.

“I’d say: ‘What are you doing here?’” said Kerry Miller, Joss’s coach. “He’d say, ‘I’m not going to miss this.’”

So there was J.D., on the porch at his house in Park City, Utah, unable to go to the nearby mountain, watching Joss through binoculars instead.

Joss’s mom, Debbie, doesn’t mind telling you: She and Joss are close, but she was a little closer to her older son, Charlie. Joss was closer to J.D. Their personalities were similar. Quiet, determined, and … well, here is a story.

J.D. had a painting business in Park City. He was not a rich man, and it’s a competitive business, with some folks hiring unskilled workers and paying them under the table.

Miller says, when J.D. hired people, he “paid their workman’s comp, paid them decent salaries, paid their insurance. You’ve got a lot of guys down there cutting each other’s throats, and J.D. wouldn’t do that.”

Miller has known Debbie since she was a waitress at the Claimjumper in Park City and he was a part-owner. J.D. always had health problems, but Miller calls him “one of those lifelong people: When you have J.D. as a friend, you’ve got him for the rest of your life.”

Joss understood. Some Olympic athletes view each other as 24-hour-a-day competitors; this week, Danny Davis could barely hide his dislike of fellow American snowboarder Shaun White. J.D.’s boy was never like that. His U.S. slopestyle skiing competitors have been friends and training partners for years.

Nick Goepper, the American who was favored here, told Miller this week that he was enjoying hanging out with Joss as much as anybody else here. Goepper got the bronze and Gus Kenworthy got the silver, an American sweep. Some teammates stand on a podium together; these guys truly share it.

Another story: A decade ago, Joss was skiing, trying to make the dangerous look easy. That is the sport. Freestyle skiers are so precise that they turn the air into a dance floor, and you forget how much can go wrong, but on that day a decade ago, Debbie said, “The wind came up, and the snow got soft.” That’s all it took.

Christensen broke both ankles. He couldn’t put weight on either, and Debbie said “he was on a mattress on a floor for six weeks.”

Miller would visit almost every day with Joss’ friends, and they saw how miserable he was. But it wasn’t because he couldn’t move. It was because he couldn’t ski.

Around the time he broke his ankles, he had an extra bone in one knee that required surgery. People would ask Miller about Christensen’s future, and Miller, who has devoted his life to helping underdog kids prosper on the slopes, would say, “It’s tough to come back from two injuries like that, back to back.”

J.D.’s boy came back.

Still, J.D. worried. He was a tall man with a mellow voice and relaxed disposition, but he was also a father and fathers worry. Would he have enough money to support his family? Did Joss need an agent? Would he get hurt? How do you get sponsors?

Last summer, Joss was training in New Zealand as his father’s health deteriorated in Utah. Miller said Joss “was having problems with luggage and skis, everything else … He said the handwriting was on the wall, ‘I shouldn’t be there.’” He flew home. J.D. died.

Joss has called it the most miserable year of his life, and it showed in competition. He started to perform better on the Dew Tour in December, but he did not automatically qualify for the Olympics. Coaches used a discretionary pick to put him on the team.

Debbie looked at the pictures Joss tweeted after he arrived in Russia and said, “I’ve never seen him look so happy. I’m just happy to see a smile on his face after everything.”

Debbie didn’t think she would have the money to fly to Sochi, but a group of donors back in Park City helped send her here.

So there she was, standing in the snow on a warm Russian day, watching her son crush his first finals run. Judges gave him a 95.80, which was all he needed for gold. His second run was a victory twirl.

Soon after, Joss would sit in a press conference with an American flag draped over his back, Goepper to his left and Kenworthy to his right, and somebody would ask about his dad. Goepper put his hand on Christensen’s shoulder as he answered.

“I hope I made my father proud,” Christensen said. “I did it for him.”

Yeah, J.D.’s heart finally got him. But when you have J.D. Christensen as a dad, you’ve got him for the rest of your life.

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