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Snowboarding at the Olympics: An Interview with Sage Kotsenburg

November 3–7, 2014   |   Vol. 121, Week 6

Can a homeschool student also be a serious athlete? Join us this week on Home School Heartbeat as Olympic gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg shares his experiences as a homeschooling snowboarder.

“The thing I like about snowboarding is that I can express myself so easily through it — like, once I strap in on my board, nothing else matters, you know?” — Sage Kotsenburg

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Mike Farris: I’m joined today by Sage Kotsenburg, who is a homeschool graduate, a professional snowboarder and a gold medalist for the United States in the Olympics. Welcome to the program, Sage!

Sage Kotsenburg: Thanks for having me on, man!

Mike: It is great. You’ve been snowboarding since you were five years old. Can you tell me how you got involved?

Sage: Yeah. We moved to Park City when I was 3½, and we skied for a year. My brother just ditched the skis and said he wanted to snowboard, and I did anything my brother did, so I was immediately on the snowboard train! It took me a long time to learn how to snowboard, but I just got so addicted to it and me and my brother just, I learned so much from him throughout the years that he was pretty much the main inspiration for me.

Mike: You clearly love what you do. What is it about snowboarding that you like so much?

Sage: The thing I like about snowboarding is that I can express myself so easily through it—like, once I strap in on my board, nothing else matters. You know? Nothing else in my life matters besides going down the run, or doing this one trick I want to do. And you know, flying through the air—it’s just this feeling I get so addicted to, I just can’t get enough of it.

So I can really just express myself and do whatever I want through snowboarding and just get away from everything and be on the mountain with my friends. Or even if you’re not with everyone, maybe you’re alone, if no one’s going up, you’re in the mountains, you’re in nature, and that’s what I love, you know. I grew up in the mountains and it’s where I belong. So snowboarding has given me so much freedom.

Mike: Sage, how did you decide you wanted to be a professional snowboarder?

Sage: I mean, I always wanted to. I was like striving for it since I was a kid. I saw the Olympics in 2002 and it hit me super hard that, you know, I love this sport so much and I was only eight. And I didn’t even really know if professional snowboarding was a thing, I just kinda was snowboarding and I loved it. And I saw the Olympics and this side of the sport I liked is slope style, it wasn’t in the Olympics, but you know, it’s in X Games, we have our whole tour, it’s really big inside snowboarding—and this was the first year it was in the Olympics.

So I wanted to go to the Olympics really bad, but it was kinda not in my future, so I just wanted to become a professional snowboarder. And if that didn’t happen, then I was just going to go some other route. I gave myself until I was 18, and I happened to be 15 when I turned professional, and I just worked really, really hard. And I’m a big goal setter, so it was a goal for me to become a professional snowboarder since I saw the Olympics in 2002.

And that was one of the main reasons. I just loved it so much. It made me happy doing it, and it was a big goal for me to become pro. So all that when I was a kid just gave me a huge drive that I wanted just to become a professional snowboarder, no matter what.

Mike: Well, it’s obvious that dedication and perseverance are a vital part of every person’s vocational calling when they’re going to follow God.

Competing in the Olympic Games is not easy by any imagination. How did you decide to aim for the Olympics? I mean, you know, your particular brand of snowboarding wasn’t even in the plans!

Sage: Yeah, so they put slope-style into the Olympics four years ago. It was right after Vancouver. And it was about time! So once it became in the Olympics, that was my next big goal. Because I became a pro, I had two X Games medals when they announced it, and it was just like, “What’s next?” And my next goal was winning a gold at the X Games. But then they put the Olympics in. And the first thing I wanted to do was to just make the team.

I mean, I definitely wanted to go there—don’t get me wrong—I wanted to go there and win, and definitely get a medal. But at first, all I wanted to do was just make the Olympic team. The US Olympic team is one of the coolest things I think you can ever do, especially for your country. And I just dedicated everything to it. And when I made the team, I just got, like—it was this numb feeling. It was like, “You finally did it—now what?” And then it was like, “Now the medal. That’s next.”

Mike: So how did it feel when you were actually competing? Was it different than what you expected?

Sage: It was a lot different than I expected. Because I remember everyone just telling me, “You can’t prepare for it. You can’t prepare for it. We can tell you all about our experience, but you’re going to have a different experience. You’re going to handle it differently.”

And so I was like, “Oh, whatever. I’ll just take it like another competition.” And then we showed up—and it was not like that at all.

It’s its own breed of competition. You show up and just the aura around the whole entire event, it’s really heavy, you know? It’s really amazing, but you can’t stop thinking about how everyone’s gonna be watching, you know? And you have to totally cross that out of your mind and reverse all the pressure, because everyone’s watching you to watch you do good. They don’t want to see you fall! But you keep thinking, you know, “What if I fall? Will the whole country be like bummed out, you know?”

But you can’t think like that. I started thinking like that at the beginning, but it’s just something I could never prepare for. And even the next one—I’ve talked to people that went back, and they said it’s more relaxing being there. But once you drop back in again—and I have a gold under me, so I have to defend it next time—they’re like, “You can’t prepare for it. You have to deal with it as it goes.”

I learned a lot about myself when I was there, just about how I can handle pressure and how I can handle situations with media and the course and being at the Olympics. So I handled it well the first time, and I hope I can go back and just learn even more about myself and just keep the good vibes going in there, because it’s definitely a lot of pressure.

Mike: What was it like growing up as a homeschooler and snowboarding together as a family?

Sage: Yeah, that was actually amazing. So I went to fifth grade in public school. Then we were traveling so much, even when I was ten and my brother was twelve in that time of middle school, that the middle school was definitely not stoked on us traveling and missing a lot of school. So my mom took us out and we, you know, we traveled together as a family for a couple years and we did homeschool.

And it was amazing, because it helped my career so much, just being able to be flexible with the homeschool. We would do so much school at the beginning of the year. Then we’d take a little bit off in the winter, and then just go really heavy in the spring. So it fit our program so well. And I honestly don’t think I’d be where I am today without homeschool. I don’t think I would have enough training in, it wouldn’t be flexible enough, and I—I can’t imagine it. It would just be terrible.

Mike: Other than your own family, did you run into other homeschoolers that are either professional athletes or were in the Olympics that had that same benefit?

Sage: Oh yeah. The more I started traveling, I met a lot of skateboarders, I met a lot of surfers, and a lot of other sports that were just going through the same thing as me. We’d all just be like, “Augh, I have to do school on Christmas break!” While everyone else is out of school, we’d be doing school, because we had some crazy schedule, you know?

And then I found that at the Olympics, most of the people that I know either went to a special school for winter sports, or homeschool. Rarely anyone that I knew at the Olympics went to public school for their whole high school, just because it doesn’t benefit you at all, the way that we travel, the way that we need to train. We need to be with our team and our coaches, and traveling the world, and, you know, competing at a professional level. And you know, we’re like—we’re kids, you know?

Mike: Yeah.

Sage: So yeah, it was cool just meeting everyone and everyone was in the same boat.

Mike: What advice would you give to students who want to become professional athletes? How can they prepare themselves for that kind of career?

Sage: With homeschooling? I think the thing I put first at the beginning, when I began homeschooling—which didn’t work—was I put snowboarding way in front of school. And you need to balance your career and school. Because I remember when I first did homeschool, I had no technique at doing it. I wouldn’t do school for a long time, and then I’d just focus on snowboarding, and then I couldn’t snowboard because I had to do school. And I quickly found a balance between my career and school, because both are very important and you can’t put one way above the other, or else you’ll succeed in one and fail in the other. And you want to do good in both.

So I’d say you’ve got to find a good balance between doing school and focusing on your career, because it can really make or break your career or your school, you know? You put one in front of the other, and you’re not focusing on the other one very much. And ahh! That’s what happened to me in the beginning. Luckily I was eleven or twelve. I literally only snowboarded, and then then I couldn’t snowboard at the end of the year because I had so much school to do, I was so far behind. And I think if I was 16, 17, 18 and at a professional level, and I was doing that, it wouldn’t have been very good.

Mike: Sage, thanks so much for giving us a glimpse into the experience of being in the Olympics. I’m Mike Farris.

Sage Kotsenburg

Sage Kotsenburg has been snowboarding since he was 5 years old. He went professional at age 15 and has never looked back. Sage introduced the world to slopestyle snowboarding with a gravity-defying gold medal run at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. He also introduced everyone to a whole new vocabulary—words like “spoicy,” “sick” and “stoked” have made Sage a fixture in the U.S. and solidified his role as the exciting new face of snowboarding.

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