Editor’s Note: Nick Goepper took home the silver medal in Freeski Slopestyle at the Beijing Winter Olympics. It’s his third medal in three different Winter Olympics.
The snow is perfect. The wind is calm. Nick Goepper squints through the brilliant sunshine, focusing his mind and body on the hill he’s about to descend and the speed he’ll need to explode off the jump.
He lowers his visor and blasts down the slope, feeling neither the warmth of the sun nor the chill of the morning air. All that matters in these few seconds is speed, timing, and a safe landing. But once airborne, Goepper is an acrobat, a showman, an artist.
As he rockets off the ramp, he crosses his skis into an X and grabs one by the tail. He tweaks it to give himself as fast a rotation as possible. Spinning like a corkscrew—which is what the trick is called—he seems to defy gravity as he flips and twists three times before a soft thud marks the moment his skis reconnect with the earth. Did I mention he lands backwards?
There is joy in his face and sometimes an adrenaline-induced scream when he lifts his visor after a good run. Goepper is in love with the snow, the speed, and how the danger and beauty of his event, known as slopestyle skiing, has transformed winter’s most popular sport.
If you’ve ever watched the Winter X Games, you know Goepper has been both the dominant slopestyle skier and the Comeback Kid. He won the gold in 2013, 2014, and 2015 before fading a bit until the so-called “COVID X Games” last year, when he again won gold.
The X Games are spectacular for the viewing public, both in person and on ESPN. Set among pine trees high above Aspen, Colorado, it’s where slopestylers, snowboarders, and aerialists strut their best moves, hoping to leave the judges with mouths agape at something they’ve never seen before. “For our sport, the X Games are our Super Bowl,” Goepper says without hesitation. “It holds more value to the core of our profession, and the talent pool is usually higher because everyone wants to be there.”
For perhaps everyone else on skis and skates, though, the highest mountain is the Winter Olympics—and that’s where Goepper is right now, soaking in the charm of the Olympic Village, exploring the mysteries of China, and seeking the one medal he doesn’t have: an Olympic gold.
Goepper is no stranger to the Olympics, having won the bronze in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games and silver in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympiad. The Chinese have designed the slopestyle event to be as much a cultural journey as it is a challenging course. Goepper and his competitors will ski down a mountain generously seeded with steel rails and a jump ramp built to resemble the Great Wall of China—and it’s a long way from home.
The Genting Secret Garden Ski Resort northwest of Beijing is quite a leap from the modest 400-foot drop in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, Goepper’s hometown. It’s where, at 5 years old, he strapped on his first pair of skis at Perfect North Slopes.
“He climbed everything and jumped off everything,” his mother, Linda Goepper, recalls. He had just learned to walk when Nick toddled outside and onto the Goepper deck in the Hidden Valley Lake community outside Lawrenceburg. Linda’s back was to the deck when her visitor’s face changed to horror. Nick had somehow climbed the pickets and was now crawling on the 2-inch-wide deck rail, 20 feet above the ground.
And, with the pure joy only a 1-year-old can express, he made it. Maybe that’s why Goepper today rides the rails with both ferocity and elegance.
Slopestyle skiing, besides requiring aerial stunts off ramps, also features sets of rails that skiers jump on and off, performing more aerial twists and turns as they do. The rails are generally made of metal and skiers land on them by launching off a mogul or small bump in the terrain. The slopestyle sound is disarming—the swoosh of skis on the snow, the clatter of the skis on the metal rail, the second or two of silence in the air, and a running soft thud as the skier moves on to the next obstacle.
It’s the kind of sport that, unlike alpine skiing, doesn’t require a majestic mountain with a 3,000-foot vertical drop and a two-mile-long run. Perfect North, Goepper says as he wolfs down a sub sandwich, was the perfect place to learn the art of skiing. “I could ski every day there, seven days a week, 12 hours a day on weekends if I wanted to,” he says, laughing. “And I usually did. You couldn’t keep me away.”
Tim Doll, Perfect North’s director of operations, remembers how you could set your clock on school days. “Nick would show up 20 minutes after the bus dropped him off from school, and he’d be here until close if he could.” Goepper became such a proficient skier that older kids with driver’s licenses would pick him up and take him home just so they could ski with him.
Goepper says he didn’t recognize it until after he moved out west to ski in the Rockies and Cascades, but Perfect North provided him the perfect training ground. Skiers born and raised out west, he came to realize, had to leave the slopes when the sun set. Perfect North, on the other hand, had lights. You could ski from 9:30 in the morning until midnight. That’s a lot of reps, and Goepper feasted on them.
As he was growing up, slopestyle skiing was an emerging sport that was starting to gain traction out west. Goepper and the cadre of older kids he hung with on the slopes were intrigued and became advocates for bringing rails and ramps to Perfect North, forming a group they called Freezing Point 32.
Today, Goepper says proudly, the Perfect North terrain park is as good as anything you’ll see in Colorado, California, or Utah. And you can still jump, spin, tumble, and ride the rails past your bedtime.
“Somewhere around age 10 or 11, I began to notice that some people had made skiing their profession, and I was interested in that,” he remembers. His mother recalls that, at about the same time, he began to understand the concept of time management. Goepper couldn’t continue competitive swimming, playing organized baseball and soccer, go to school, finish his homework, and still spend as much time as he felt he needed at Perfect North. It was time to focus.
Linda and his dad, Chris, were always supportive, Goepper says, but they didn’t push it. Linda says their philosophy with all four of their children was to let them find their own path and passion and learn from their own mistakes. They provided parental guidance, Linda says, but not mandates.
Goepper appreciates he wasn’t pushed to ski. “I know too many kids who were messed up by their parents because they pushed them too hard and they burned out,” he says. His parents encouraged his competitive nature. “Even when I’d have little tantrums on the snow,” he laughs.
By early high school, Goepper was clearly the ski stud of southern Indiana. But he wanted more—the toughest slopes, the most challenging jumps, the best instructors, and a new set of friends who’d push him past his limits. He found several ski boarding schools out west and began selling his parents on the idea of leaving East Central High School.
His parents were flummoxed. Chris had just lost his job in the recession, so money was an issue. Nick’s skills had exceeded anything they could comprehend, but they wondered how he’d stack up against skiers who were tearing down the sides of real mountains. But Linda and Chris decided he needed his shot. They had to help him open that first door so their first-born could see where it led. Turns out, it led to slopestyle superstardom.
Over the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of high school, Chris and Linda took Nick to Okemo Ski Resort in Vermont and to Lake Placid, New York, where a well-known ski instructor agreed to evaluate him on water ramps and the trampoline. That led to an invitation to train in Utah with one of the country’s venerable daredevil skiing coaches, Mike Wilson, and a second invite to participate in a water rail jam competition in San Jose, California. When he won, Goepper was offered a full scholarship at Windells Ski Academy in Oregon.
“The biggest thing with Nick wasn’t the tricks,” Mike Hanley, his Windells Academy coach recalls. “It was the crashes he was taking. They were spectacular, but he kept getting up and trying. It’s that determination that has allowed him to accomplish what he has.”
Hanley, who was one of those judges at the San Jose water rail jam, laughs when he recalls Goepper’s first year at Windells (which has been renamed Wy’East Mountain Academy) in 2009. “He hated me,” he says matter-of-factly. “These action sports are lifestyle sports, and so much of what these skiers do is tied to their personality and their core as a human being. You tell someone that they’re doing something wrong? It’s kind of like telling someone they don’t have the right eye color.”
Goepper won’t admit he “hated” Hanley, who also taught humanities at the academy. But he does say the first year was rough. He had expected a glamorous ski resort with groomed runs, high tech classrooms, a nice lodge, and lots of kids his age who were laser-focused on skiing. “Yeah, I didn’t know that it rains like nine months out of the year in Oregon and there were going to be only about eight other students in my class and most of them were there because their parents were rich and they just wanted to have a good time,” he recalls. He was a 15-year-old Midwestern boy far from home and very serious about his sport. He wondered if he’d made a mistake.
He hadn’t. Windells, he says, is where he learned to become a champion skier. His body developed, but more importantly his creativity flourished. He began experimenting with new jumps off the ramp and rails. He worked on the trampoline and with inline skates. He learned to surf and mountain bike. But all of it was designed, purposefully, to develop muscles and coordination that would help him on the snow.
Linda noticed that the focus was extending to the classroom. “I remember talking to him when he was in Europe with Mike [Hanley] and they’d spent the whole day discussing the Protestant Reformation,” she says, laughing. “I thought to myself, Hmmm, I wonder how that went.”
Flash forward to 2014 and the Sochi Olympics. Goepper was the two-time defending X Games champion and the consensus favorite to win gold in the first-ever Olympic slopestyle competition. He finished third behind two other American skiers in what the press called a red, white, and blue sweep.
Winning an Olympic medal is tough, but it doesn’t get any easier when you return home. The media’s appetite is insatiable. So are the corporate sponsors and the public. Goepper and his fellow medalists, Joss Christensen and Gus Kenworthy, hit the road for what seemed like an endless round of interviews, public appearances and photo shoots. It was exhausting and, for Goepper, disorienting.
Depression, we know now, is a real issue. It’s not uncommon among athletes, particularly those who compete in individual sports. But this was 2014, before Simone Biles walked away from the gymnastics competition in Tokyo. Before Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt acknowledged their mental health issues. Golfer Rory McIlroy and basketball great Brittney Griner had not yet opened up about their journeys.
In 2014, depression was kept in the dark, to be suffered and treated silently. Broken bones were acceptable; broken minds were not.
Goepper was just 20 years old and had spent more than half of his life perfecting his art. He’d taken the world by storm in two straight X Games, when millions of viewers watched in awe at his acrobatics. He was a social media star and had picked up several corporate sponsorships. He was a slam-dunk to win the first-ever Olympic gold in slopestyle skiing. And, can you believe it, the media gushed, he’s from Indiana!
Winning the bronze was a blow, and it had to have been agony to go on David Letterman, The Today Show, ESPN, and more than 60 other appearances playing the unwanted role as the caboose on the Slopestyle Train. Goepper had trained relentlessly to win, and, man, it was so hard to smile.
“Every ounce of your life is on that one moment when you’re competing at the highest level, and then that moment is gone,” says Hanley. “You wake up the next morning and there’s no rapture. It’s over and you come home, and everybody is saying the same thing: Wasn’t that great? And you say ‘yes’ but you don’t really mean it because you can’t tell people you feel like, Well, if that’s as good as life gets….”
His voice trails off and you realize that, while it’s Mike Hanley who’s explaining this post-Olympics black hole, he’s really channeling Goepper.
Nick isn’t afraid to admit he lost his way. He began to drink heavily and withdraw emotionally from the world. He waited for nightfall because, he says, that’s when time slowed down and he felt more at peace. He contemplated suicide, even driving to a canyon in Utah where slopestyle skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson had killed himself in 2011, less than 18 months after winning an Olympic silver medal. Fortunately, Goepper says, he wasn’t “ballsy” enough to follow through.
“I didn’t have the right perspective,” he says now. “I thought skiing and my success at skiing was the sole measurement of me as a person. I was a skier, and that’s all I was.”
Returning home, Goepper acted out by throwing rocks at passing cars, damaging several. He was charged with criminal mischief. He apologized, made restitution, and entered a diversion program. Then, with the help of the U.S. Olympic Committee, he entered a rehab facility in Texas.
Goepper says he’s emerged a better person, understanding he’s not “healed” but in control. He had a relapse after the 2018 games in South Korea, and Linda says that episode resulted in doctors determining he suffered from bipolar II disorder. Symptoms aren’t as intense as the bipolar disorder most are familiar with, but it’s a challenging condition that requires mindful monitoring. Linda admits she’s nervous about the weeks following these Olympics, but she’s quick to say Goepper is better prepared today to recognize “the spiral,” as she calls it, and get help.
Hanley, who Linda says knows Nick as well as anyone, has a less clinical term for his friend. “He’s an eccentric introvert,” he declares, “and that’s not unusual for those in extreme sports.” Sometimes the extremely introverted personality overcompensates and becomes the wild man. That’s not Goepper.
“For years, he seemed like he was always the odd man out, coming from Indiana and living a clean life,” Hanley recalls. “He didn’t do drugs or booze, and he was always one to not brag and just let his accomplishments speak for themselves.”
Goepper says he realizes now that he literally was skiing through life without a plan. He likes to quote Heath Ledger’s Joker from the movie The Dark Knight. “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” he recites, sounding more like the boy next door than the grotesquely painted villain hovering over Harvey Dent’s hospital bed. “You know what I am? I’m just a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.”
Truth is, Goepper has already caught a dog—just not the dog, which is that elusive Olympic gold medal. The dog he’s caught is peace, perspective, and the beginnings of a plan for his life on the snow and off.
“I’m really proud of him,” Linda says. “He’s been through a lot, but he’s so much better now. He’s been exposed to a lot more suicides than anyone his age should, and that takes a toll. But he’s seeing a counselor, living healthy, and he’s as happy as I’ve ever seen him.”
Goepper has his own playland behind his Salt Lake City home that captures his love of life. It’s a replica of his backyard in Lawrenceburg, with a 15-foot-tall ski ramp, a trampoline, basketball court, climbing wall, skateboard track, and ramps and rails. It’s a popular meeting place for the kids in the neighborhood who he lets in, but only if they come to his front door first and agree to strictly obey his safety rules.
“I even have my picture on the fence,” he laughs. “I call it Goepperland, and the kids love it. I just make sure none of their parents are lawyers.”
In one of his many entertaining Instagram posts, Goepper is standing at the bottom of a run, shirtless with arms outstretched. Three skiers in succession barrel at him off camera, braking hard and inundating him in clouds of snow. A high-pitched “woo-hoo” is all you hear before he turns toward the camera with the look of a guy who, at heart, is still that toddler joyously crawling on his parents’ deck rail. And like that toddler, Goepper is again completely comfortable in his own (chilly) skin.