BONGPYEONG, South Korea — Cans of Cass Light, Budweiser and Fitz had been flowing all morning at the base of the hill, but they could not stanch the anxiety the Gerard clan felt Sunday as Red Gerard stood on the top of the slopestyle course, ready for his last run. They had come together, 18 deep, to cheer on the second youngest of seven siblings, the 17-year-old, 115-pound pipsqueak becoming America’s latest snowboard sensation. They waved cutouts of his head on sticks, U.S. flags and signs, including one that read, “We’re here to get Gerarded!”
But now, as Gerard prepared to drop in, there were nerves. He had failed to land his first two runs, meaning any chance of landing on the podium depended solely on his third and final trip. Even Red, who had arrived at the Olympics declaring his expectation for a “mellow” experience spent “just hanging,” later would admit to nerves.
Minutes later, the party really started at the base of the hill. Gerard executed a flawless, electrifying and audacious run that vaulted a rider admired by his peers into a wholly different level of fame. Gerard’s 87.16-point run, punctuated by a spinning, flipping jump through the mountain chill, launched him into first place and ultimately earned him the United States’ first medal of the Games, a gold that would cause those rowdy Gerards to let the party rage all night.
“If we’re not in jail,” brother Brendon Gerard said, “then something didn’t go right.”
“Right on,” father Conrad Gerard said, shortly after dispensing a Cass Light empty.
Let the celebration begin, all Saturday night in America and for who-knows-how-long over here, with this loud, lovable and loaded gang of Gerards. His family, Clevelanders by way of Colorado, particularly four older brothers, had ushered him into the sport and now watched him stand on top of an Olympic podium.
“I saw a video of them shotgunning beers at 8:30 a.m.,” Gerard said. “I’m pretty sure they’re doing just fine.”
After qualifying Saturday, Gerard fell asleep with roommate and best friend Kyle Mack, watching a “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” rerun. His alarm was set Sunday morning for 6, but he hit snooze until Mack roused him.
The day began with inauspicious conditions. Gerard’s size — he’s 5-foot-5 — gives him the advantage of being able to rotate quickly in the air, but he is more prone to wind gusts affecting his jumps. On Sunday morning, it was so breezy that, a couple dozen miles away, skiing officials canceled the men’s downhill on account of wind. Gerard failed to land jumps on each of his first two runs, putting him 11th out of the 11 riders still alive.
“It wasn’t stressful,” sister Tieghan Gerard said afterward. “The kid had it the whole time!”
“It was f----- stressful,” Brendon Gerard said.
Even Red felt nerves. He considered changing his route but decided even successfully making alterations would result in fourth or fifth.
“I know what he’s doing up there,” said Brendon Gerard, also a professional snowboarder. “I know what he’s thinking. I’m not surprised. It’s kind of like a go-to thing. His go-to thing happens to be the best thing that’s going on in the sport right now.”
Gerard is esteemed in snowboarding circles for his creativity, and his run showed it off. In the course’s second feature, he was the only rider to use the quarter-pipe, jumping over a rail no other rider thought to use. He finished with a risky backside triple cork — three spinning flips, executed with the board starting in reverse position.
Conrad Gerard, still reliant on his older sons for snowboarding knowledge, turned to them and asked, “Was that good?” Brendon nodded. He knew if Red landed his run, he would win gold.
“The way he made it all flow together, that’s what’s bringing his uniqueness,” Brendon said. “It’s not about one trick. He has something other people strive to have. It’s style. It’s an art. It looks like he’s dancing out there.”
Gerard developed his style through joyous repetition, tagging along with his brothers. His second-oldest brother, Trevor, started the clan snowboarding. He started on small hills with $10 lift tickets outside his childhood home in Cleveland, then to the mountains of Colorado, where his family moved when he was 8. Gerard started competing internationally at 10 and joined the U.S. national team at 13.
He had an assist from supreme natural athleticism. According to family, Gerard could walk at nine months, snowboard at 2 years and perform standing backflips by age 6. Brendon recalls Jen offering him $20 if he could teach Red to ride a bike when he was barely 2. Brendon took training wheels off a bike, went inside to grab something and looked out the window.
“And he’s already riding down the driveway,” Brendon said.
He pocketed the 20 bucks.
“It was like, ‘You don’t understand,’ ” Brendon said. “ ‘We got something special here. This kid’s going to be insane.’ ”
“He’s such a special kid, though, too,” said Tieghan, a food blogger with nearly a half-million followers on Instagram. “So much personality. He’s so fun.”
An entire country is bound to find out. Having won America’s first medal of the Games, Gerard owns the nation’s sporting spotlight. It happened on a Saturday night back home, when a marquee event — the men’s downhill — was canceled, the NBA is in the doldrums and the NFL is removed from the Super Bowl.
“America is going to love him,” said his agent, Tom Yaps.
“Whenever he gets cocky, he gets slapped down by his brothers,” Conrad Gerard said. “They remind him what a little guy he is.”
Gerard is not finished here. He also will compete in the big air competition, which is making its Olympic debut in these Games, with qualifying scheduled for Feb. 21. In his first public appearance at the Games, at a news conference earlier in the week, Gerard said, “I don’t even know what the Olympics is.” Already, though, he has made his mark on them.
“I just wanted him to land a run so he’d be happy with himself,” Jen Gerard said. “I never thought he’d win gold. I’m so proud of him.”
As Red walked toward the ceremony, Jen and Trevor broke away from the beer-sipping pack. Trevor watched his little brother Red standing on a podium, so far from all those $10 lift tickets and backyard runs. He put his arm around his mother, smiled and asked her, “Who would have ever thought that?”
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