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How a 17-year-old girl inspired America's first gold medal at the Sochi Games

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Back in Edwardsburg, Mich., a 17-year-old named Ally Berry sat in front of her TV trying desperately to keep her eyes open deep into Saturday morning. She slugged back energy drink after energy drink. She wanted to watch the first slopestyle snowboarding competition in Olympics history. Little did she know how big a part of it she would become.

About two months ago, a rider named Sage Kotsenburg asked his fans on Facebook to name a new trick of his, a 1260-degree-spin with two complicated board grabs: his rear hand crail, stretched to the front of the board, and his other hand Japan, making it, as Kotsenburg would later say, "like a pretzel." Berry loves the Jay-Z song "Holy Grail," and as a competitive snowboarder herself — she often faces all guys — she loves the crail grab as well. She married the two, typed "Holy Crail" and birthed the name for the trick that helped win the first gold medal of the Sochi Games and the first medal ever for an American in Russia.

[ Related: Kotsenburg wins gold in slopestyle upset ]

On the strength of his Holy Crail and a backside 16 Japan air — a 4½-spin trick Kotsenburg never had even tried, let alone stomped — the 20-year-old from Park City, Utah, stunned a deep field in slopestyle's introduction to the Olympics and upset favorites Stale Sandbech (silver) and Mark McMorris (bronze). After failing to advance to the finals during qualifying on Thursday, Kotsenburg sizzled in the semifinals to take a spot among the last 12 riders, then saw a 93.5 score on his first run hold up.

Almost halfway around the world, Ally Berry was happy that she had plugged her computer streaming the live feed into a big-screen TV, thrilled that she soldiered through her exhaustion, and giddy enough to dance and scream at about 4 a.m.

"About woke my parents up," she said via direct message on Twitter.

[ Photos: Kotsenburg wins slopestyle gold ]

And that was before she knew that in his celebratory news conference, Kotsenburg mentioned her by name when talking about the Holy Crail. She is just a junior at Edwardsburg High School in a town with a population of a little more than 1,000 people, and Kotsenburg is one of snowboarding's gods of style, the antidote to the spin-to-win culture that has turned contests so homogenous. As most elite riders embraced triple-cork jumps with three off-axis flips and simple grabs like mute, right between both feet, Kotsenburg raged against the machine, preferring board tweaks and double grabs to more spins and flips. An online video series called Sage Kotsenburg's Holy Crail captured him in a candid moment after a poor showing at the X Games, the tune-up event to Sochi.

"Guess I gotta go do triples and mute grabs," Kotsenburg said.

He paused.

"Not."

In a snowboarding scene full of eminently likable riders, Kotsenburg might be the easiest to fancy. He's funny. He's candid. He's outspoken. He is the best kind of bro: the one who calls great things "sick," says he's "stoked" every minute or so and doesn't radiate the pomposity of bro culture. He's just a kid who loves to shred, and it's why other kids who love to shred, like Ally Berry, find him so appealing.

"To be that stylish is technical," U.S. snowboarding head coach Mike Jankowski said. "To do those double grabs is much more difficult than it is to not. He wants to put his stamp on the run. The course is the canvas. Your board is a paintbrush."

And Saturday, Kotsenburg played Van Gogh. His rivals marveled that he won despite not throwing a single triple, opting for style, Stanbech said, "instead of the same old schwing-schwing-schwing." It was risky. Following his failed qualifying run, Kotsenburg criticized judges for saying they wanted stylish runs, then not rewarding him for one.

[ Related: Shaun White explains decision on slopestyle ]

"That's what judges expect," Berry said. "Triples all day long. That gets boring, honestly. I wanted to see the Holy Crail happen."

She wouldn't have to wait long. After he advanced to the finals, Kotsenburg joined Jankowski and his teammates in a lounge to refuel with some turkey, rice and water. He called his older brother, Blaze, and told him he was thinking about throwing the Japan 16 in addition to the Holy Crail. And about three minutes before he dropped in, he decided: What the hell. It's the Olympics. He may never be here again. And before winning a Grand Prix event at Mammoth Mountain last month to qualify for the Sochi Games, he hadn't won a competition since he was 11 years old. No sense in not going big.

View photo

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Sage Kotsenburg is the first American to win an Olympic medal in Russia. (USA Today)

"That's kind of what I'm all about," Kotsenburg said. "Doing different, weird stuff. Maybe you've never tried it before. Maybe you've tried it a couple times but haven't landed it. That's what I think is the sickest thing. In snowboarding, you just go in there and try your own trick that no one's ever landed. And put your own flair in it."

Kotsenburg crushed it on the final jump following a frontside 1080 rocket air, and his nickname of Second-Run Sage — rarely does he land a first run so cleanly — now can be mothballed permanently. McMorris couldn't beat him despite a pair of triple corks, and neither could Stanbech or X Games champ Max Parrot. The fear of American inferiority in slopestyle with Shaun White's withdrawal earlier this week proved severely misguided.

[ Related: Billy Morgan creates stir in U.K. over use of snowboarding slang ]

For the first time in more than 60 years, an athlete from Team USA won the first gold of an Olympic Games. And as the homeschooled kid who grew up on a board in the mountains went down to Sochi to claim the gold medal that will forever be his, another kid just three years younger prepared to go to bed. Ally Berry was getting tired, and in less than 12 hours she had a competition at Swiss Valley Ski and Snowboard Area in Jones, Mich.

Berry is riding in the slopestyle event, and while she hadn't planned out her run yet, before she took a nap she made sure to tweet out the one trick she promised to throw.

"Doing a crail grab tonight!"

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