As the snow glistened off Perfect North’s slopes on a warm early March morning, Olympic silver medalist Nick Goepper soaked in the glow of being back home again in Indiana. With two cameramen filming on either side of him, he ran the slopestyle course, rekindling sweet memories. These were the slopes, the rails, and the jumps that he first made as a Lawrenceburg grade schooler. Who knew that this kid would go to three Olympics and come up with three medals, the latest one a silver in Beijing?
“It’s awesome to be back home,” Goepper said as he feasted on chili and fries between runs. “It’s so cool to see everybody so excited that there are Olympic athletes who ski here.”
Goepper wasn’t the only Perfect North skier to win a medal; Justin Schoenefeld took home a gold in mixed team aerials. Hundreds of fans celebrated with them at the southeastern Hoosier resort the Sunday after the Beijing Games closed nearly 7,000 miles away.
Goepper’s ticket to China may have been as harrowing for him as the actual competition. COVID had disrupted the traditional sequence of skiing events that qualify skiers for the U.S. team. As a result, he didn’t learn that he’d been selected to the four-man slopestyle squad until after the last event of the Winter X Games, 11 days before the lighting of the Olympic torch.
“I wasn’t really all that worried,” Goepper said without a hint of braggadocio in his tone. “My mindset was ‘I’m going,’ so it really wasn’t a surprise, but I just knew I needed to put down my runs and ski well.” He didn’t win at the X Games, but he did ski well enough to be named to the team, along with his friend Alex Hall, who would go on to win the slopestyle gold in Beijing.
There was no time to hoist a celebratory beer in the lodge at Buttermilk Mountain, however, since Goepper and his teammates had one day to get from Colorado to Los Angeles, where the U.S. Olympic team was gathering for orientation and COVID isolation. “Yeah, I had time to do my laundry and sleep for two hours, and then we left,” he said. “It was kind of crazy.”
Goepper left his family behind to watch the Olympics in Park City, Utah, because China would conduct the entire event with no fans.
Lest you think he had just the clothes on his back and a little clean laundry, not to worry. Once in Los Angeles, Goepper said, the team was taken to a large hotel near the airport and “we were dressed.” Olympic officials outfitted each member with an Opening Ceremony kit, a Closing Ceremony kit, Olympic Village attire, and podium outfits. “Yeah, they were pretty nice, too,” he said, laughing. “I wore the same pair of sweatpants for three weeks because I really liked them.” They did have laundry facilities in the Olympic Village, he explained, the workers there bent over backwards for the athletes.
During the Games, the media talked at some length about concerns that the Chinese government might hack into athletes’ cellphones to steal data and other private information. American athletes were thus urged to leave their cellphones at home and use burners instead. The press also reported that athletes were being schooled as to what to watch out for in a surveillance-focused country that’s considered a U.S. adversary.
The story might have been a bit overblown. Goepper said team members were given a packet of information about privacy concerns in China, but he didn’t read much of it and others on the team didn’t either. Goepper took his own cellphone to China, but he made a conscious effort to avoid any apps that could contain a link to sensitive information. “I stayed off my banking app,” he said, laughing.
The U.S. Olympic Committee had designed the L.A. stopover to be a spot for team bonding, COVID testing, isolation from the public, and orientation information that apparently wasn’t paid attention to by the Olympians. But for Goepper, Los Angeles was a slow-moving disaster in the making. He’d tested positive for COVID, even though it had been three weeks since he’d had it. He had no symptoms and plenty of energy, but “the papers”—as he put it—said the virus was still lurking in him. The team boarded the plane for China, leaving him behind. “It was so stressful, so frustrating,” he recalled.
Goepper waited and tested again in the suddenly quiet bubble, wondering if this was how all of his work would end. Finally, four days later, the test vial said “negative,” and he received the green light to travel. He arrived in China just in time to march in the Opening Ceremony, which he described as one of the highlights of his two-week experience.
Goepper said he remembers being nervous at his previous Olympics but, this time, as an experienced 27-year-old, he was “soaking it in.” He paid attention to the details of the Opening Ceremony: the energetic singing and dancing, the light show, the fireworks, the music. He watched his younger teammates go slack-jawed at the sensational extravagance. “I think I was living vicariously through them, especially the ones marching for the first time,” he said.
For him, life in the Olympic Village wasn’t much different than his previous experiences in Sochi or Pyeongchang, even though COVID protocols required the athletes to remained confined strictly to the Village bubble that the Chinese government had created. He says he’ll always carry the memory of hundreds of Olympics workers dressed head-to-toe in hazmat suits. He talked to as many as he could but admits he wouldn’t recognize any of them if he saw them again.
One big piece of news was that it snowed in Beijing. That may seem flip, but the area of China where the skiing events were held is not in a snow belt. So, to be sure, Olympic officials had blanketed the competition slopes with artificial powder. Lots of it. But then, out of nowhere, it snowed. Hard. The wind blew with ferocity, and visibility was dramatically reduced. It was too dangerous on the mountain, and Olympic officials were forced to delay competition for several hours. The schedule backed up.
Goepper’s slopestyle event was pushed back a day, but he was pumped. “My event was supposed to be the same day as the Super Bowl, and I decided it wouldn’t be a good idea to watch it,” he said, citing the need to avoid distractions. “But when we were bumped to the next day, I at least got to watch half of it.” He didn’t watch the entire game, though, because of the time difference. “Yeah, I heard about it,” he said, sighing.
In the Olympics, skiers first perform a qualifying run and, if you make the cut, you then have three runs with the best run counting as your score. Goepper stood at the top of the nearly 2,000-foot-long run, electronic music booming in his ear buds, keeping time with his heart. It was his second run. He had come off one of the rails a little too early with his first run and was thinking about the tiny adjustment he needed to make. “Sometimes it’s the tiny adjustments that are the biggest thing because you’re so focused on just this one little thing,” he said.
The Secret Garden run at the Genting Snow Park sports three jump features and three jibbing features, which are elevated rails on which skiers twist and turn. Rails and jumps are the essence of slopestyle skiing, and the Chinese had built a slopestyle course that was both technically challenging and a photographer’s delight. It was dominated by a replica of a Great Wall watchtower—a pagoda-shaped obstacle framed by two halfpipes that the skiers ominously nicknamed “the Shred Shed”. A terror for many skiers, Goepper salivated. That’s where he’d win his silver medal.
“When I saw that in the plans, I immediately said, ‘Man, I’m gonna hit that,’” he recalled, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “I love big gnarly rails that stare you in the face. I love jumping on top of stuff and going really high and far.”
As he paced back and forth at the top of the mountain waiting his turn, Goepper remained within himself. He’s not a talker when he’s ready to catapult down the slope. A fellow skier might get a brief smile or a silent fist bump, but that’s about it. He’s focusing.
“I made a couple of bobbles on my first run, and I knew that was gonna be a throwaway,” he said. “On that second run, I overcompensated a bit and had two bobbles again, but I knew they weren’t bad and I was gonna score.”
He scored alright. And it was the shred shed where he blew away the judges.
Where many of Goepper’s competitors decided to avoid the pagoda or approach is from safer angles, he attacked it, doing exactly what he’d envisioned so many times since seeing a video of the course. Climbing the rails to the roof, he took the hard way off, ignoring the easier right-down-the-middle path to launch instead into the halfpipe wall on the side. He earned a score of 86.48, and he held his breath.
“I got to the bottom (of the run) and thought, ‘That wasn’t a bad score, but I could do better,’” Goepper recalled. “I still can’t believe the score held up.” He ended up bailing on his third run and then had to sweat it out as other skiers finished up their runs. He finished 3.53 points behind Alaskan Alex Hall, who, Goepper said, “was just a little more creative than I was in terms of how he used the course.”
Goepper had good things to say about China. He knew the politics, but now he says he knows the people. Warm, welcoming even in their hazmat suits, he was amazed at their cheerfulness and their hard work. “I think you judge a country by its people,” he said, “so my perception of China is pretty good.” Of his three Olympics, he said, China was the best experience.
One thing Goepper didn’t get to see—and no athlete did—was China outside the bubble. It was just a different kind of Olympics, just as life in general has been so different. Goepper is returning home to Salt Lake City after a few days in his Indiana childhood surroundings, and he plans to relax and think.
Is there a fourth Olympics in his future? He’s not closing the door, even he’ll be 31 when the winter athletes of the world convene again in Milan, Italy. Goepper laughed at the prospect of being the Tom Brady of slopestyle skiing.
“Skiing is the easy part,” he said. “I know my body can do it. It’s still strong. I know I can do the tricks and learn new ones. So I’m thinking about it.”
For now, though, he said he has “other stuff to do.” There are things he’s put off or hasn’t had time to do because, except when he’s been injured, he’s been on skis for most of the last 15 years of his life. He said he won’t compete any more this year and will take time to “chill,” reconnect with family and friends, play with his snowmobile and skateboard, and contemplate future business ventures.
Nick Goepper a man relaxed and at peace with his medals and his future, confident that if you can conquer the Shred Shed you can make it anywhere.