PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — In the days after he became an Olympic champion, 17-year-old snowboarder Red Gerard took in the spoils of instant stardom. He told Jimmy Kimmel about his family’s drinking exploits, posed for a People magazine photo shoot, appeared on “CBS This Morning” and explained his gold medal slopestyle run to Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest.
The three-day, bicoastal blitz typified the experience of many American gold medal winners, who have a limited window to capitalize on their sudden fame. What Gerard did next was atypical: He flew back to South Korea to compete at the Olympics again.
On Feb. 11, Gerard claimed the men’s slopestyle gold medal with a creative and daring final run, winning in front of 18 family members who gained renown of their own for hard-partying exuberance. On Saturday, Gerard finished sixth in the big air finals, in which competitors tried to perform their best single trick after flying off a massive ramp. In between, he made the 13-hour flight to Los Angeles, availed himself to late-night couches and early-morning gabfests and then made the 14-hour flight back.
With 10 days off between slopestyle and big air qualification, Gerard, agent Ryan Runke and the team around him seized a unique opportunity. They had planned to take advantage of the competition gap if Gerard won gold, presenting shows and media outlets with the chance to host an Olympic gold medalist while most of them remained in South Korea.
“I had a tentative plan in place, based off of who he is as an athlete, the event being so early in the Games, the time off between events, knowing there’d be few opportunities for other Olympians to have the first run of media,” Runke said. “All the circumstances aligned. The way the case played out, it was something we could not pass up.”
The moment they climb a podium, Olympic medalists receive a jolt of recognition from outside their sport. One day, they’re anonymous; the next, they’re on the “Today” show. It might happen only once in their career, and it will occur only once every four years at best. Almost all the athletes rely not on salaries from teams but on sponsorship deals for the lion’s share of their income. Increasing their profile at the right moment can alter their professional trajectory.
“There is a huge opportunity after winning an Olympic medal or having an incredible Olympic performance,” said U.S. Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who won a gold medal in Sochi at 18. “The world is watching you for a certain amount of time. You can take advantage of that time and create a career out of it.”
Gerard struck while the iron was hot, even if it meant rearranging his training calendar. Runke and Gerard had discussed the plan before the slopestyle event, arriving at a schedule Gerard felt confident and comfortable with, should he win gold.
Gerard’s outlook made it easier. He grew up following snowboarders at Dew Tour events or at the X Games. He viewed snowboarding in backcountry as the highest form of the sport — “true snowboarding,” he called it. He never viewed the Olympics as a dream, plus he knows he is more of a threat to contend in slopestyle than big air. He didn’t want to hurt his big air performance by traveling, nor did he think he would. But if that’s what happened, he was fine with the sacrifice.
“I don’t really look at myself as a big air rider,” Gerard said after qualifying for the final. “It was more that I kind of knew the tricks I wanted to do going into it, and it wasn’t really anything crazy, anything wild.”
Gerard won slopestyle gold amid an early U.S. snowboarding surge, with Jamie Anderson, Chloe Kim and Shaun White all claiming gold in succession. Anderson won gold in Sochi in 2014, and NBC had made Kim and White two of the prominent faces of the Games. To the world outside snowboarding, Gerard had been comparatively anonymous. By arranging the three-day tour at home, Gerard could close that gap.
“We needed to get Red to the same media level, or as close as possible to the other three more well-known gold medalists,” Runke said. “We couldn’t pass that up.”
Gerard packed as much as he could into his three days back in the United States. He made Kimmel laugh by explaining how his cousin had turned “getting Gerarded” into a synonym for getting drunk while in college. He sat down to film a video at Sports Illustrated’s office. He told Ripa how his mother, Jen, has to watch him from the last row of the crowd because of nerves.
“It’s been cool,” Gerard said. “This is something I’m definitely not used to, but I’m having a lot of fun doing it.”
While Gerard toured, Runke navigated through roughly 40 media requests and a handful of companies expressing interest. He said the key to sorting through potential sponsors is finding the right fit and timing for Gerard’s brand. He doesn’t necessarily want to add to Gerard’s list of “partners” just because he can, he said.
Once Gerard finished in New York, he boarded a plane — business class — and returned to the Games.
“The jet lag was crazy,” he said. “But coming back was mellow, because I’m still on this time zone.”
Gerard’s performance in the big air qualifier, in which he advanced by finishing sixth in his heat, validated Gerard and Runke’s belief that the travel and three-day blitz back home would not derail his performance. Gerard did not medal in big air. But he already has gotten so much out of these Games, even when he wasn’t at them.
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