BONGPYEONG, South Korea — The newest face of American snowboarding has a puckish smile, a few fading pimples and faint wisps of stubble above his upper lip, all framed by dirty-blonde hair in a persistent state of just-woke-up. It belongs to Red Gerard, a 17-year-old Clevelander by way of Colorado who stands 5-feet-5 and weighs 116 pounds, so slight you think he might take flight off a ramp, catch a gust and simply float away.
Gerard loves snowboarding, more for its bonhomie than competition. Upon arrival at the PyeongChang Olympics, he said he was “just hanging” and anticipating a “mellow” experience. When his coach asked him if he wanted to check out the slopestyle course at Phoenix Snow Park, Gerard chose to sleep in.
“I honestly don’t know what the Olympics is,” Gerard said last week.
The Games are starting to learn about him. Saturday, Gerard qualified for the men’s slopestyle finals, finishing third in his 18-rider heat with an inventive, mistake-free first run, cheered on by 18 friends and family members, most of them waving cardboard cutouts of Gerard’s face. His teammates — Ryan Stassel, Kyle Mack and Chris Corning, who may have been victimized by harsh scoring — failed to make Sunday’s 12-man final, which will feature four Canadians.
Gerard’s performance typified his approach. He chose a line none of his other competitors copied, different even than what he envisioned when he first laid eyes on the array of rails and jumps. It took him all three practice days to make a final plan. He was the only rider who, rather than landing on one rail, jumped over it, grabbing his board for extra flair. Just how did he come up with that?
“I don’t know,” Gerard said. “No one was doing it, and it looked like a pretty fun line. I try to be a little bit different than everyone else.”
“He goes his own way all the time,” said Swedish snowboarder Niklas Mattsson, who also qualified for the final. “He finds his own creative ways when he’s competing. I love his style. Even if he’s still growing, his arms are over here and there, he makes it look solid. He’s going to be one of the big names.”
His skill and approach can be traced back to several of those rowdy, sign-waving Gerards in the crowd at the bottom of the hill, most of them sipping Korean beer. He has a rambunctious family of diverse talent — his sister Tieghan is a food blogger with more than 468,000 followers on Instagram, his brother Brendan is also a professional snowboarder and his brother Malachi follows him on tour to shoot films for Mountain Dew.
“Having a large family, it’s not like we are totally focused on Red,” said his mother, Jen. “We’ve got other kids. You can’t have one little star in the family. They all have their own strengths and talents. We try to be supporting.”
As the youngest of five boys — and the second youngest of seven siblings who range in age from 8 to 32 — Gerard never wanted to lag behind. And he could keep up, born with uncommon athletic coordination. At 9 months, he could climb out of his crib and walk around the house; Jen had to explain to an incredulous furniture store manager that, yes, she really needed a bed for her 9-month-old. He clung to his older brothers, particularly Malachi, who loved skateboarding and snowboarding. By 2, Gerard was snowboarding himself.
Gerard rose so quickly because he packed so much repetition into his years. The family moved from Cleveland to Colorado — “my midlife crisis,” Jen Gerard joked — when Gerard was 8. He spent summers at Camp Woodward, a facility with foam pits, trampolines and skate ramps. He spent the winter on slopes with his brothers — rarely did a day pass without Gerard gliding on a board, spinning through the air or both. It all added together to make him something close to a prodigy. At 10, he started traveling the globe for junior competitions. By 13, he had been named to the U.S. national team.
Despite so many years of competing, Gerard views snowboarding primarily as a joyous, collaborative pursuit, a form of expression. He sounded wistful last week describing trips to small mountains outside Cleveland with his family.
“There’s this big show. We’re all over the place,” Gerard said. “My older brothers were all hung over, probably. We never took it seriously. We were just having fun. We’d go to the crappiest mountain, because they had the cheapest lift tickets.”
At the same media session, a reporter asked him his proudest accomplishment from the tour.
“Probably the one that I won at Snowmass,” Gerard said.
“You won Mammoth last year, too,” the reporter said.
“I won Mammoth,” Gerard said. “I forgot about that.”
His competition schedule and training leave little time for what Gerard calls “true snowboarding” — hanging with his buddies, maybe snowmobiling into the back country, just pure fun.
“I love that he wants to bring that into the competitive scene of snowboarding, to push people to just do your thing,” Mattsson said. “Let’s have some fun. He’s up there laughing, just giving everyone high-fives.”
His brothers built a miniature park in their parents’ back yard, complete with a generator-powered lift. For a year, he would ride at Breckenridge all day then join his brothers all night. Now, his professional demands mean he rarely makes it back.
“Now, my snowboarding is a two-a-day practice, and I just do the hardest tricks I can,” Gerard said. “It gets tiring after a while.”
Gerard has lived on the road since 13, taking classes online. Sometimes, he briefly imagines what it would be like to attend a brick-and-mortar high school. He sees his friends back home forming friendships, “always hanging out with girls and stuff,” he said. He’ll check their Snapchat pictures and think, “That would be so cool, to do what they’re doing.” Those thoughts, though, are always fleeting. He remembers quickly he is doing exactly what he wants.
“He wants to win so bad,” USA Snowboard Coach Dave Reynolds said, “even though he acts like he doesn’t.”
Gerard has a chance to win. What he will savor no matter what, his mother said, is the experience. He is doing what he loves, and this weekend he gets to do it on a broader stage. There will be 18 people who love him, including the brothers who shepherded him into the sport, waiting for him at the bottom of the hill, waving pictures of a face that’s about to become far more recognizable.
“We’re already an obnoxious group,” Jen Gerard said, laughing. “It’s going to be difficult to not see us.”