By Philip O'Connor
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia, Feb 5 (Reuters) - There are Olympic medals at stake for the first time in the sport's history but for most competitors in slopestyle snowboarding, camaraderie seems to come first.
As the competitors stood laughing and joking in the mixed zone, American snowboarder Sage Kostenburg told Reuters that he hoped that sense of friendship wouldn't disappear when qualifying begins on Thursday.
"I really hope not, we're all pretty good friends and we get on well, so it would be a shame if all that was to change and everyone turned up tomorrow all serious," the 20-year-old said, grinning.
"Obviously I would be so stoked to win an Olympic medal, but just the fact that slopestyle is in the Olympics for the first time is so sick. Not many people get to do this, you know?"
Kostenburg and his fellow snowboarders will be some of the the first competitors in action at the Sochi Games when they begin qualifying on Thursday, a day before the opening ceremony.
The slopestyler said that qualification made the process a bit more difficult, as the athletes balance the prospect of direct qualification for the final against the need to keep something special in reserve to put them in the medal hunt.
"Qualifying is hard - you can qualify directly for the finals, but you don't want to blow your best routine straight away. You've got to keep something for the show!
"Besides, everyone knows what everyone else can do, but you've still got to keep some secrets for the crowd."
A few metres away Australia's Scotty James was shooting the breeze and laughing in the sunshine as other competitors passed by on their way to the locker rooms.
"I think that's just the nature of snowboarding - we're all pretty good friends and we like to have a laugh. I don't think that will change tomorrow.
"I think that's pretty cool too, that no-one is too stressed out and stiff. I definitely try to take more of a friendly approach, to talk to everyone, have a laugh and a bit of fun about it," the Australian told Reuters.
James said he was proud to be part of the biggest-ever Australian team at the Winter Games, and that he would be aiming for a spot in the final.
"In slopestyle I'm aiming for a spot in the final and then just laying down the best run I can when I get there, (but) I'm in half-pipe as well, and there I'd like to make the podium."
Both snowboarders expect the first slopestyle snowboard event at the Olympics to be a crowd-pleaser.
"Everyone's been out there this morning throwing it down and I've been doing my best too. I think it's going to be a great competition," Kostenburg said.
Given the easy, relaxed relationship that exists between the competitors, it seems that they will all celebrate no matter who wins, but Kostenburg is unsure of exactly what they will do.
"I don't know. Maybe go up there and just ride some powder, get a free run," he says, before bursting into a wide smile.
"With that medal around my neck!" (firstname.lastname@example.org)