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Olympics: Anderson’s freak out turns gold in slopestyle

Reuters Winner Jamie Anderson of the U.S. jumps during the women's snowboard slopestyle finals event at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Rosa Khutor, on Sunday.

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Jamie Anderson stood at the top of the slopestyle course, her boots strapped to her snowboard and opportunity at her feet. She had won more of slopestyle’s big competitions than any woman in history, but now the event was in the Olympics, and she had one run to capture the gold medal everyone expected her to win.

“I was freaking out,” Anderson said later.

Around her neck, under her jacket, she wore strings of mantra beads, from a yoga teacher in Breckenridge, Colo., that Anderson said gave “sacred energy.” There was “power stone” and “moon stone” of clear quartz. In her ears, she had the Nas song “I Can” playing.

“I know I can,” the song begins, to a head-bobbing beat, “be what I want to be.”

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She imagined her run, felt the landings, saw her family and her “spirit grandma” - a neighbor from South Lake Tahoe, Calif. - cheering at the bottom, nearly half a mile and 45 seconds away.

And then she went there.

Anderson won the gold medal, a case of the biggest prize going to the event’s biggest star. She capped an American sweep of the inaugural Olympic slopestyle events, after Sage Kotsenburg had won the men’s event a day earlier.

“I was really just trying to stay calm and kind of preserve my energy,” Anderson said later, her shoulders wrapped in the American flag and a smile draping her face. “There was a lot of stress up there. Even though it’s just another competition, the stage and the outreach that this event connects to across the whole world, is out of control. All of us just wanted to do our best. I was so happy and thankful to put down a run.”

As in the men’s slopestyle, in which competitors navigated a course of obstacles and then launched themselves from several large jumps, judges rewarded style over size.

Anderson’s winning run included a pair of 720s, or two rotations, done with grace. A couple of competitors performed more spins, including Sina Candrian ofSwitzerland, who landed the first 1080 by a woman in competition. But she finished fourth.

It was an echo of the day before, when Kotsenburg’s smooth, stylish performance beat more acrobatic routines. They were telling results, because snowboarders have long been leery of the Olympics, fearing that they would pull the sport away from its mellow roots and toward an aerials-style spinoff. Over two days at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, Olympic judges quashed those concerns, rewarding nuance over spectacle.

Anderson’s run contained plenty of difficulty. And when she saw a few others attempt bigger, but not necessarily more eye-pleasing tricks, she pondered her own run.

“It crossed my mind,” she said. “But at the end of the day I wanted to do something I could do perfect.”

Others could not duplicate it. Australia‘s Torah Bright, the defending gold medalist in the halfpipe who earned her way into three Olympic snowboarding events this time, could not land a clean run and finished seventh.

Silje Norendal of Norway, who won the slopestyle event at last month’s Winter X Games, and Spencer O’Brien of Canada, who was third at the X Games, each succumbed to wipeouts and finished 11th and 12th, respectively.

Finland‘s Enni Rukajarvi won the silver medal. Jenny Jones won bronze, becoming the first British Winter Olympian to earn a medal in a snow event.

But it was Anderson, 23, popular for her radiant personality and earthy manner, who placed atop her sport again. The fifth of eight children, home-schooled and intimately familiar with the mountains around Lake Tahoe, she had never seemed the type to get anxious over another snowboarding competition. She had won so many.

But she had been so nervous Saturday night that she did not eat. She turned on meditation music, burned sage, wrote in her journal and did yoga to calm herself.

“I love her,” Jones said, laughing as Anderson described the routine. Jones relaxed by watching “Downton Abbey.”

Anderson’s nerves spiked again after a near-perfect first run was ruined by a poor landing on the third and final jump. It was still good enough for second among the 12-women field’s first run, but by the time Anderson got her second and final chance, she was in fifth place.

Coach Mike Jankowski reminded her to breathe. And smile.

“At the end of the day it’s snowboarding,” Anderson said. “We all started it because of the fun it brings, and how much joy it is being out there on the mountain with your friends. It’s like playing, you know? We’re pretty much snowboarding on a playground up there.”

Still, she felt the gravity of the opportunity. The X Games, she later said, are the biggest event in action sports, but the Olympics are the biggest event in sports.

She closed her eyes. She took a couple of deep breaths. The beads did their work. Nas did his. Then Anderson did hers. It was all just as she imagined.