SOCHI, Russia — A few hours after snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg won the first 2014 Winter Olympics gold medal for the U.S., in the first event of these games (in the debut of slopestyle, no less) the shaggy-haired 20-year-old drove down to the Black Sea to explain to reporters what had just happened.
Kotsenburg was beaming but still a bit bewildered himself, and — in a poetic reminder of the collisions of culture that the Olympics provide — the dialogue that transpired at the winner’s press conference set up a linguistic labyrinth for Russian interpreters attempting to keep up with Kotsenburg’s technical lingo peppered with snowboarder slang.
He said he hadn’t even planned his final run until about 10 minutes before he dropped in, when he grabbed a cell phone out of his wax technician’s backpack and called his brother, Blaze Kotsenburg, to run an idea by him.
When the phone rang, Sage Kotsenburg recounted, his brother was in Park City, Utah, watching his event via live stream with a throng of friends.
“He was like, ‘Whaaaaaaat? Everybody be quiet. I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you,’” Kotsenburg said.
When Kotsenburg told his brother he was thinking of doing a backside 1620 Japan (which entails rotating 4 1/2 times) even though he had never done the trick in his life, his big brother replied, “Really? Send it, I guess. Might as well. You’re at the Olympics.’”
So Kotsenburg did — but only after landing a cab 270 to switch, half-cab on back 540 off flat down, half-cab layback slide off the cannon back 180 out, cab double cork 1260 holy crail, frontside 1080 off the toes rocket air.
The judges understood it.
Kotsenburg’s effort was rewarded with 93.50 points — good for the gold — 1.75 points ahead of silver medalist Staale Sandbech of Norway and 4.75 points ahead of pre-Olympic favorite Mark McMorris of Canada, who took bronze despite fracturing a rib less than two weeks ago.
Kotsenburg’s attempt to break down the run in lay terms was head-spinning and borderline futile.
Imagine, then, how the simultaneous interpreters felt. Most press conferences in Sochi are interpreted for non-English speakers.
Kotsenburg required not one but two linguists to convert his stoked, sick, chill lingo into Russian. But double-teaming isn’t unique to snowboarding. It’s standard even at the United Nations, and interpreters often take turns speaking because the task is so mentally demanding.
Nonetheless, “I didn’t really think he’d go that technical,” said Andrey Lesokhin — who a few days earlier translated International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach’s remarks from English into Russian for President Vladimir Putin.
“But this was not the most complicated (thing),” Lesokhin’s fellow interpreter Oxana Yakimenko added. “In Russian, a ‘grab’ is a ‘grab,’ ‘cab’ is like ‘cab,’ and even though there’s a Russian word for ‘rail,’ we say, ‘rail.’ But ’jump’ is ‘tramplin,’ and a ‘spin’ is ‘vraschenije,’ and ‘flip’ is ‘salto.’”
What about “stoked”?
After a pause and some prodding, Yakimenko admitted, “We used the word for ‘under the influence of alcohol,’ which is kind of like ‘under the fly.’”
Lesokhin mostly noticed that Kotsenburg “said ‘sick’ a lot.”
The Russian word for sick, “bolnoy,” Yakimenko said, “is bad, like you have a disease or something.” But there are plenty of Russian words for “crazy,” so the duo substituted “bezumny,” “kruto” or “sumasshedshy.”
“You have to prepare for jobs like this,” Lesokhin said. Fortunately, the interpreters had watched Kotsenburg’s runs on TV with Russian commentary, so some of the tricks were already ingrained.
“But you also have to live the same life as the athlete so you can think the way they think,” Lesokhin said.
That meant reading as many articles as possible about Kotsenburg — a nonplanner who confessed, “The holy crail is a grab I invented a couple months ago. Ending with a 1620 Japan was pretty … random, but I guess it worked out.”
History, however, will be much more definitive.
On Saturday, Kotsenburg officially became the fourth American to win gold in the first medal event of a Winter Olympics — joining speedskaters Charles Jewtraw (1924) and Jack Shea (1932) and Andrea Mead-Lawrence, who won the women’s alpine giant slalom in 1952.