PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Nick Goepper came to PyeongChang with a chip on his shoulder.
At the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, the 23-year-old slopestyle skier was part of a U.S. podium sweep, and he made it clear that he wanted to upgrade his bronze to gold.
He successfully upgraded Sunday afternoon on this third and final run, but this time to silver. And given the stiff competition, he could not have been happier.
“It just felt incredible,” Goepper said. “At the top, I was visualizing myself landing the last jump, arms open, just screaming. It came to fruition.”
Oystein Braaten, a five-time X Games medalist from Norway, won gold with a first-run score of 95.00. Goepper scored 93.60 on his third and final run, while Canada’s Alex Beaulieu-Marchand, a 2014 Olympian and 2017 X Games bronze medalist, took bronze with a second-run score of 92.40.
Gus Kenworthy, who won the silver medal in the U.S. sweep four years ago, made the final with a 90.80 earlier in the day. But he finished 12th in the final with a score of 35.00. Kenworthy was competing with a broken thumb and bruised hip.
The hip hematoma, which had to be drained, was more painful than the thumb.
“I was kind of dealing with that all day,” Kenworthy said. “But I was able to make it through to the final and thought maybe I’d be able to put down another run. I don’t know. It’s all good.”
In an upset, neither Team USA’s reigning world champion McRae Williams nor 2018 X Games gold medalist Henrik Harlaut from Sweden advanced to the final. The fourth American, 2016 Youth Olympic medalist Alex Hall, also missed the 12-person final. Williams and Hall finished 15th and 16th in qualification.
Slopestyle skiing has changed dramatically since the sport’s Olympic debut four years ago. Younger freeskiers from all over the world, like Braaten, have pushed the sport, throwing more spins and twists with each jump.
When Braaten threw down his first run, going huge on his jumps, and scored a 95.00, it became clear that he was the skier to beat. Yet with such a strong field, Braaten was unsure if his score would hold up.
On his first two runs, Goepper looked as if he was not even in Braaten’s league. The American made small mistakes on the rails, then decided to throw more conservative jumps. With the mistakes up top, he knew neither run would achieve a podium-worthy score.
“I really decided to conserve my energy and really lay it all out on the third run,” he said. “I really had to dig deep and trust myself.”
At the top of the course for his third run, Goepper thought, “This is it, this is my final chance, I’m at my second Olympics, I want a medal.”
With clean rails and big airs thrown to both sides, Goepper landed the run and threw his arms in the air, just as he had visualized.
“I knew that it was what I was hoping for,” he said. “I knew that caliber of run would put me up there in the top three.”
Two of the jumps (the first and third) were the same ones that Goepper threw in Sochi, when he won his bronze medal. Would his score hold up with three skiers to go?
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay up there,” Goepper said. “It was a nail-biting moment waiting at the bottom.”
But no one could top Goepper’s third run — or Braaten’s first.
With his second Olympic medal, Goepper now has a plan going forward. Four years ago, he fell into a post-Games tailspin, partying with his friends and “flying into a void.” Drinking was a symptom of depression, and he kept sinking deeper. Finally, during the summer of 2016, he checked into a treatment center and received the help he needed.
He has not had a drink in two-and-a-half years. More importantly, he now knows how to handle what an Olympic medal will bring.
“It’s important to have a plan,” he said. “How does that saying go? Fail to plan, then you’re planning to fail. I really had no plan after Sochi.”
His plan after PyeongChang is to “capitalize on this moment,” but then get back to work. He loves to ski and loves to compete.
“I really want to get back to it as quick as I can, and maybe even ski a little halfpipe,” he said.
As for Kenworthy, he kissed his boyfriend, Matthew Wilkas, before his runs on Sunday. Unbeknownst the freeskier, it was caught on TV. When told that it had become a big moment, Kenworthy was proud to be breaking down more barriers.
“That’s definitely not something I had as a kid,” he said. “I definitely did not see a gay athlete at the Olympics kissing their boyfriend, and I think that if I had, it would have made it a lot easier for me. Hopefully, it did that for other people.”
Even though he missed winning another Olympic medal, Kenworthy was also proud of how he skied, especially with his injuries.
“Win or lose, it’s not the thing that defines me,” he said. “I’m just proud to be here representing the U.S. and to have made it through to the final and stoked for the guys who made it on the podium.”
“I don’t know,” he added, “maybe there’s a next time.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, PyeongChang is her fifth. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.