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Scarred by her first Olympics, Hailey Langland had to rediscover her love of snowboarding

Snowboarder Hailey Langland says, “I know I’m just going to enjoy it way more if it’s only for me and it’s not for the result.” (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times via AP)

BEIJING — The first thing Geoff Langland taught his daughter about snowboarding was how to love it. He did not have to try. When he gave her a board at age 4 and they started making weekend pilgrimages from their Southern California home to Mountain High Resort, he transmitted the joy he had carried since the infancy of the sport in the late 1980s.

“Snowboarding for me, it started off as a love thing,” Hailey Langland said. “It wasn’t like my dad said, ‘You’re going to become a pro snowboarder.’ ”

But her talent became irrepressible. Langland was earning sponsorships before her 10th birthday and winning contests by her teens. The 2018 PyeongChang Olympics were supposed to be the apex of Langland’s rapid and unimpeded ascent. Instead, the Games severed what she had always felt for snowboarding. The experience made her question her relationship with the sport. She considered leaving behind competitive snowboarding, if not putting away her board entirely.

“I was just in complete shambles,” Langland said.

On Saturday, Langland will drop in at the top of the Genting Snow Park slopestyle course in Zhangjiakou, back at the Olympics. Still just 21, Langland came to Beijing with a renewed approach, still at the top of her sport but less concerned about exactly where. In PyeongChang, winning a medal consumed her before she finished sixth in slopestyle and 14th in big air. Here, she wants to inspire others and experience the moment. She is seeking redemption but not through an outcome.

“I put a bunch of pressure on myself, and to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it at all,” Langland said in December, sitting outside a Copper Mountain, Colo., coffee shop. “I wasn’t enjoying not getting the results I wanted. As I’ve grown over the last four years and how my riding has grown over the last four years, I know I’m just going to enjoy it way more if it’s only for me and it’s not for the result.”

Essentially, after years of success, Langland has returned to how she viewed the sport at the start. Geoff Langland started snowboarding as it morphed from a weird activity that irritated skiers to a full-blown industry. He went to Lake Tahoe, Calif., every week, working for a time as a janitor at Boreal Mountain for the free lift ticket. For five years he rode as a sponsored pro, before he decided he needed something more stable. He moved to Southern California for school, met his wife, Michelle, and found work in information technology.

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One day, Geoff needed something to read before a flight. He spotted a snowboarding magazine. As he flipped through pages, he read about former pals from the pro circuit. It reignited a spark. He decided he would take his daughter to the mountain.

The first few trips were slow, but once Hailey turned 5, it was like a light switch turned on. Geoff marveled at how good his daughter was, and all she wanted to do was go to the mountain with her dad and mom. For a parent, no feeling is as profoundly enriching as watching your child fall in love with something, except maybe watching her fall in love with the same thing as you.

“We never really thought about the endgame as far as contests or a career or anything else,” Geoff said. “All it was was something her and I could share.”

One weekend, Geoff spotted two little girls competing in a contest at Mountain High. He thought it might good for Langland to ride with kids her own age. He asked little Hailey whether she wanted to try that, and she said yes. Geoff later learned the girls were Chloe Kim and Maddie Mastro.

Geoff still had contacts in snowboarding, and on a lark, he sent a video of his daughter to Burton, the sport’s most prominent equipment company. Months later, it responded with an offer to sponsor her on its developmental Smalls Team. Geoff took her to a coach. The family moved closer to Big Bear Mountain and home-schooled Hailey. She started winning national youth contests.

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After Langland turned 15, she earned an invitation to a Dew Tour event. She was 10 years younger than most of her competitors, many of whom she still idolized. She shocked herself and the rest of the snowboarding world when she finished third. The performance granted her entry into the X Games, where she finished third in slopestyle in her first appearance. The next year, still only 16, she won big air at the X Games and finished fourth in slopestyle. She landed on a U.S. Grand Prix podium. She suddenly claimed a place at the top of American snowboarding.

“It was just kind of like this snowball effect where I almost in a way didn’t feel like I was ready to be competing against these girls but I was thrown into it,” Langland said.

Langland qualified for the 2018 Olympics two weeks before they began. She expected she would earn a medal in PyeongChang. She had burst through at every other step, so why not the Olympics? Along her way to Games, though, the joy snowboarding brought had transformed into pressure. Langland did not threaten a podium finish.

“Being thrown into those big, monumental events, it’s kind of hard for the people that don’t succeed through those because the pressure really comes down,” Langland said. “If you don’t win the Olympics, you don’t get any recognition at the end of the day. There’s no, ‘Congrats, you got second.’ Or, ‘Congrats, you got sixth.’ There’s such a high demand for success that even if you get sixth in the world or second, it kind of makes you feel like you failed.”

After the Olympics, Langland met with sponsors and discussed the possibility of filming videos in the backcountry instead of competing. She thought hard about what she wanted to do next. “Most of all, it was just her needing time,” said Red Gerard, her boyfriend and a slopestyle gold medalist.

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When the next season started, Langland took falls and twice injured her shoulder badly enough that it required surgeries. Langland connected the injuries to how her Olympic disappointment colored her view of the sport.

“I wasn’t really respecting it,” Langland said. “I wasn’t excited to go snowboarding or even compete.”

The injury gave Langland the time she needed. She watched Gerard and so many of her friends leave for a training session in New Zealand while she sat home with an ice pack on her shoulder. Gerard told her, “Just remember how cool this is.” Once she recovered from her injury, Langland returned to contests and finally felt like her old self.

“I was so mentally and physically distressed afterward, it almost wasn’t worth it to me,” Langland said. “But now I see it in a different light, and it’s not just for me. It’s for inspiring girls like who I used to watch growing up. I want those girls to watch me and say: ‘That looks so fun. That’s what I want to do.’ ”

In early December, Langland sat outside a Starbucks in Copper Mountain, chatting with Gerard and a reporter. A girl approached their table and caught her attention.

“Hailey, right?” she asked. “I think I met you this summer.”

“Oh, yeah. Hey, how you doing!?” Langland replied. “How’s your shoulder?”

The girl explained she had separated her shoulder again but it had improved to the point where she could snowboard again.

“When you were like, ‘I know because I’ve been in those things before,’ it kind of inspired me. Like, ‘She’s been in them, and she’s back, and she’s ripping.’ So it was a huge inspiration to me.”

“Awww. Thanks! Of course!”

“Seriously, you made a huge impact on me. Just that conversion made a huge impact.”

“Oh, thank you! Maybe one day we can take some laps.”

“That would be freaking amazing,” the girl said. “That would be like a dream for me.”

Langland thanked her and wished her well. As the girl walked toward the chairlift, Langland beamed, then turned sheepishly.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” she said. “That was pretty nice.”

On Thursday night, Langland called home and talked with Geoff about the slopestyle course. She loved the possibilities it offered, how it fit her style-first approach. That style is what Geoff has always admired. “I’m amazed every time I watch her ride,” Geoff said. He will watch her again at these Olympics, so far away but still connected.

“From now on, I want to enjoy it,” Langland said. “I don’t want to skimp out and make every experience a negative or positive one. I just want it to be an experience.”

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