PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Four years ago, Nick Goepper and Gus Kenworthy shared a podium as part of the third U.S. sweep in Winter Olympic history. Bronze medalist Goepper, silver medalist Kenworthy and gold medalist Joss Christensen left Sochi early for a parade of media appearances.
They visited Rolling Stone. They went on David Letterman. Then they went their separate ways.
Goepper and Kenworthy, after a life-changing Olympic cycle for very different reasons, qualified for a second Olympics and competed here Sunday morning and afternoon. Christensen, in a failed comeback bid from a May torn ACL, was unable to join them.
Goepper, the gold-medal favorite four years ago, nailed his third and last run in the ski slopestyle final to grab a silver medal behind Norwegian Oystein Braaten and in front of Canadian Alex Beaulieu-Marchand. Goepper had been in ninth place.
Kenworthy, so talented he also would have made most countries’ ski halfpipe team, didn’t deliver in the final. He erred on all three runs and was 12th out of 12 skiers. He owns seven combined X Games, Olympic and world medals, but none are gold.
Braaten, a 22-year-old from a town of 400 people 87 miles northwest of Oslo, could be a breakthrough story.
He is the first athlete from the most storied winter sports nation to win an Olympic title in a discipline introduced in the last 25 years. Norway is known for Alpine and cross-country skiers. It will top every Winter Olympic medal table if athletes like Braaten multiply in freeskiing and snowboarding.
Goepper was also a small-town kid. That was his story four years ago. From the small farming town of Lawrenceburg, Ind., selling candy bars and mowing lawns to pay for ski passes at a nearby resort (“a glorified bunny hill”), to X Games titles and major corporate sponsorships.
Then last month, Goepper’s story changed. He began revealing in interviews that in 2014 and 2015, he suffered from depression, a drinking problem and suicidal thoughts.
“He called one night, and he said, ‘Mom, I’m thinking about going to get a bottle of vodka and go sit in my car in Lambs Canyon [Utah] and drink the whole thing,’” his mom, Linda, said in the X Games interview. “Lambs Canyon was where another skier had committed suicide [2010 Olympic aerials silver medalist Jeret “Speedy” Peterson in 2011]. I knew that Nick was in trouble.”
Goepper attended rehab in Texas for two months in fall 2015.
He didn’t miss major competition, three-peating at X Games in 2015 but then falling back to 11th in 2016 and 2017. Though Goepper was the first American to qualify for the Olympic ski slopestyle team, Braaten and viral Swiss Andri Ragettli were now the Olympic favorites.
Goepper, seventh at X Games last month, had a solid run in the qualifying round but ranked only fifth behind Braaten, Ragettli and several others. Then, in the final, he did what he could not in Sochi -- outperform expectations -- with that third and final run, capped by a triple cork 1440.
“I never thought that his was a possibility,” Goepper said. “I climbed out of that hole.
“I’m just smarter and more mature and hopefully a good example to anyone who might be dealing with the same issues.”
Kenworthy was the story all day – and all season – before Goepper’s clutch run.
There was Britney Spears’ tweet in the morning, which Kenworthy learned of on a bus and “freaked out.” Tyler Oakley, a social-media influencer with six million followers each on Instagram and Twitter, attended his first ski slopestyle contest.
“[Kenworthy’s] existence is a form of resistance,” Oakley said with mini American and gay pride flags sticking out of a pants pocket. “It’s game changing, life changing, identity affirming. To be here, to root for him in person, not only is it good to see my friend but good to cheer on our community.”
When Kenworthy came out in October 2015, he lamented not being ready to share a moment with his then-boyfriend at the Sochi Olympics. On Sunday, he and boyfriend Matthew Wilkas kissed in front of journalists and photographers before qualifying, then again with a TV camera catching it after his first run.
Kenworthy didn’t know it made it on the air, but he was glad.
“It was something I was too scared to do [in 2014],” Kenworthy said. “It’s the only way to really change perceptions, break down homophobia, break down barriers is through representation. That’s definitely not something I had as a kid. I definitely didn’t see a gay athlete at the Olympics kissing their boyfriend, and if I had, it would have made it a lot easier for me.”
These Olympics were not easy for Kenworthy. He crashed hard in the last Olympic halfpipe qualifier, showing off the bruise to Ellen DeGeneres.
He broke his right thumb Thursday and had 140 ccs of blood (six vials’ worth) drained from a hip hematoma on Friday. His hip range of motion was limited.
Maybe that’s why he said Sunday afternoon that just getting to the Olympics and making the final was the cake. A medal would have been icing.
“It would have been hard to get on the podium today,” he said. “I’m bummed, but I’m not sulking. I’m not crying.”
Kenworthy finished about five minutes before Goepper’s last run. He watched it from outside the finish corral before entering the mixed zone for media interviews.
When Goepper’s score came up, Kenworthy clapped his skis, then collected himself and headed toward the cameras.
“In so many ways it’s a different Olympics,” Kenworthy said. “To get to really be myself here has really made it a wonderful experience.”
Goepper came through about 15 minutes later. He said he hasn’t had a drink in 2 1/2 years.
"It's very important to be authentic and true to yourself,” Goepper said. “A great example is my teammate Gus Kenworthy.”