A silver medallist in the inaugural Olympic snowboard slopestyle competition at Sochi in 2014, Norway’s Stale Sandbech is the reigning world champion in big air, an event that will be making its own Olympic debut at PyeongChang 2018. And the 24-year-old has his sights set on gold in both events, at what will be his third Olympic Winter Games.
“There’s an old saying that I heard a lot when I was growing up: ‘Norwegians are born with skis on’,” says snowboard slopestyler Stale Sandbech. “Well, I was born with a snowboard on!
“We have a lot of great winter sports athletes in Norway, and it means a lot to me to be one of them, even if snowboard is a little bit different to other sports. We’re artists. That’s just the way we roll.”
Sandbech was just eight when he was given his first snowboard for Christmas. It soon became his passion. The young Norwegian tried his hand at all the discipline’s events, developing the style that has made him instantly recognisable on the slopes.
He has taken inspiration from his older brother, Frode, who was a professional snowboarder before becoming one of the world’s most celebrated freestyle snowboard photographers.
“He’s my hero, my role model, my agent, my manager, my mentor and my brother,” said Stale of his older sibling. The two have been inseparable throughout Stale’s career, and Frode has captured his brother’s exploits on film all over the world, with the best of his photos gracing the covers of leading winter sports magazines.
Stale’s talent was such that he made his Olympic debut at the age of only 16 at Vancouver in 2010, where he became the youngest athlete to represent Norway since Sonja Henie in 1924.
Competing in the snowboard halfpipe, the younger of the Sandbech boys failed to get through the qualifying round, finishing 30th in an event won by Shaun White.
It was in slopestyle and big air that Stale would express all his talent, however, developing ever more complex tricks and establishing himself as one of the leading riders in the world. He cemented that status in 2012, when he became the first boarder ever to land a triple underflip 1260.
Slopestyle silver in Sochi
Sandbech returned to the Olympic stage at Sochi in 2014, switching his attention to slopestyle, which was making its Winter Games debut. After finishing first in the qualification round, the day before the Opening Ceremony, the Norwegian was unable to back up that form in the final, two days later.
After a disappointing first run, Sandbech was under pressure to impress on his second, not least because his close friend Sage Kotsenburg of the USA had scored an impressive 93.50 points with his first attempt.
In a bid to impress the judges, Sandbech decided to change his plans for his second run: “I’d intended to do a triple cab, but I knew they didn’t give the highest score for it. So, I changed it for a cab 12 and a more imaginative grab, which I’d worked on myself.”
The switch brought him 91.75 points and a silver medal ahead of Canada’s Mark McMorris. Giving his reaction, the Norwegian said: “I just want to say that the Olympic podium is probably the craziest thing ever. It was amazing. There was a bench where you waited your turn. And then I found myself on the podium with two of my best friends. I didn’t even know where to look. I just said to myself: ‘OK, concentrate. You have to remember this.’”
Big air world title
Sandbech also amassed medals at the X-Games, winning three bronzes (two in big air and another in slopestyle) and a silver in slopestyle before his progress was halted in 2016 by an injury that required three knee operations.
But he marked his comeback in 2017 with two more X-Games slopestyle silvers, one in Aspen (USA) and the other in Hafjell (NOR).
In March 2017, Sandbech enjoyed the crowning moment of his career to date, when he lifted the big air world title in Sierra Nevada (ESP).
In his three runs, the Norwegian produced a cab 1440 tail, a backside triple cork 1440 and a frontside 1440 tail to seal gold. He could not contain his delight. “I nailed all my runs in the final: three different tricks with three different rotations. I chose them so I could prove to myself I was capable of doing them.
“I had to fight with myself and get the confidence I needed to stop me from being scared. I was brimming with confidence and I’ve found myself in snowboard again.”
Already regarded as one of the most complete freestylers of his generation, his unprecedented tilt at double gold in PyeongChang gives him a chance to cement his status at the pinnacle of his sport.