Alex Hall let out a scream when he landed his final trick on the slopestyle course, and that was before the judges awarded him what would be the winning score. It was, he would say later, the best race of his life.
“Oh, I was thrilled,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I just landed this.”
Hall was one of three Americans looking to fill the medal box in the men’s freestyle slopestyle event, hoping a European-focused field wouldn’t disrupt those plans.
Two of them did it: Hall won gold and Nick Goepper won silver on another sunny, subzero day at Genting Snow Park. Jesper Tjader of Sweden won bronze.
In a competition where only a skier’s best score counted, Hall set the standard early with a score of 90.01 on the first of three runs. Everyone spent the freezing morning trying to match it, but no one made it. Goepper came the closest, in his second run, scoring 86.48.
“Okay,” he said when the score came up. “I take it.”
Each of the Americans in the final arrived with high hopes and a moving story. Goepper, 27, was looking to complete a full rainbow of medals, having won a bronze in 2014 and a silver in 2018. He battled alcohol abuse and depression, opening up about his struggles following his 2018 performance in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
In an interview last month, Goepper said he was pleased that other Olympians seemed more and more willing to discuss their mental health.
Colby Stevenson, 24, was in a near-fatal car accident in 2016 late at night on a rural road in Idaho. He spent days in a coma, but recovered to return to the World Tour and win major events. At those Olympics, he won a silver medal in big air and was in contention for another medal in slopestyle.
Instead, he finished seventh, unable to cleanly clinch the race he imagined.
“I gave it everything I had,” he said after his last chance.
The day belonged to Hall. The 23-year-old was born in Alaska but raised mostly in Switzerland, the son of professors from the University of Zurich. He didn’t train until he was 16, when he was invited by the US freeski team to train in Utah. For a time, he considered competing for Italy, where his mother is from.
This journey, freed from the constraints of coaches and youth competitions, gave him a bit of a free spirit.
He finished 16th in slopestyle at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics as his career took off. He won a World Cup that year and the X Games in 2019. He finished third at the world championships last year.
He is tall, well over six feet tall, but stands out above all on the slopes for his originality.
“You’ll see him doing a whole bunch of slaps and nose butters and creative ways to use the course,” American freeski coach Dave Euler said of Hall in December. “He’s a very creative course user.”
The Olympic contest was the final showing of the slopestyle course, an exceptional – but temporary, site made of snow – designed to look like a section of the nearby Great Wall. Its combination of rails, obstacles and jumps created a plethora of possibilities, but vexed some of the best snowboarders and freeskiers in the world. Hall and Goepper loved it.
“As soon as you standardize this sport, you’re going to kill it,” Goepper said. “So if you can leave the creativity and the artistry to us, that’s going to keep this sport fresh.”
This is why Hall was considered the most worthy of Olympic champions. He has won big competitions with dizzying pirouettes, a relentless spin-to-win trend in both freeskiing and snowboarding that worries purists.
But on Wednesday, Hall brought a bag of technical tips, hoping the judges would reward him for his originality rather than his spins.
His last jump was one he’d only landed a few times before, though it’s really only a 900 degree spin – half of what many other tricks are these days. As Hall described it, it spun one way in the air, stopped, and spun the other way before landing.
This led to the cry.
“I always thought to myself, if I’m not having fun doing it, then there’s really no reason to do it,” Hall said. “So might as well do what brings me all this joy.”
His smile was concealed by a mask, characteristic of the Olympic Games organized during a pandemic. But his eyes shone under his icy eyebrows. He wore an American flag on his shoulders, and soon, a gold medal around his neck.