BONGPYEONG, South Korea — This was, four years ago, the most American of celebrations — three teammates standing for the anthem, hugging, holding arms for photos. They were in Russia then, and they were 19, 22 and 22, the first Olympic medalists in their nascent sport.
But so long is the gap between Olympics that, after one Games ends and before another begins, entire careers can take off or careen, rise and fall, and sometimes rise and fall again. The bronze medalist that day in Sochi, Nick Goepper, was about to jump into modest celebrity and tailspin, winding up in rehab. The silver medalist that day, Gus Kenworthy, was still searching for the nerve to tell his secret, terrified of what might happen if he said publicly that he was gay. The gold medalist that day, Joss Christensen, was celebrating with his mother, calling the moment the best of his life, no idea that four years later, with another three men’s ski slopestyle medals on the line, he wouldn’t make it back.
And so, Sunday in PyeongChang, there was another, less American podium, and yet still it told the complicated story of three athletes and four years.
Christensen was back home, out of the Olympics after a major knee injury, writing on Instagram hours before the event, “I’m bummed I can’t be out there today,” and, “Good luck to all my friends.”
Kenworthy was fighting off injuries, settling for a disappointing 12th place, only this time, the disappointment wasn’t so bad: Cameras showed him kissing his boyfriend, and Kenworthy said he felt proud. “Like, just getting to be myself,” he said.
And then there was Goepper, the only American to get back to the podium, who used a daring final run to grab silver, and who afterward talked about Kenworthy, and Christensen, and his own journey, and who said, “I loved having the experience over the last four years.”
It was Goepper, now 23, who was perhaps most thrown by the aftermath of Sochi. He first traveled with Christensen and Kenworthy to New York City — a week-long media blitz that gave him a rush. But then, he returned home. The afterglow faded. He stayed awake during nights. He started drinking almost daily. He was arrested in August 2014 on criminal mischief charges for throwing rocks at vehicles — something he later apologized for, providing checks to cover the damages.
According to an X Games YouTube documentary posted last month, he at one point called his mom and said he was thinking about taking his car to Lambs Canyon, in Utah, and drinking a whole bottle of vodka. “I was constantly thinking about ways to end my own life,” Goepper said in the documentary, and by the middle of 2015 he was in rehab.
“I was partying a lot with my friends, kind of flying into this void,” Goepper said on Sunday. “Three weeks after the [Sochi] Olympics I was like, What am I doing?”
He checked in just as Kenworthy was taking his own, much different, big steps. He’d spent years thinking about whether to come out, and how to do it, and what the fallout might be, and then in October 2015 he did it with three words. “I am gay,” he wrote on Twitter, and from then on he was no longer the same athlete, nor the same public person.
He became one of the country’s two openly gay male Winter Olympians. He attracted corporate deals from Samsung and Visa. A documentary crew would soon start following him. He grew outspoken on LGBT issues, and this week after injuring his thumb, he posted an X-ray for his 217,000 Twitter followers. “Broke my thumb yesterday in practice,” he wrote. “It won’t stop me from competing (obvi) but it does prevent me from shaking [Vice President Mike] Pence’s hand so ... Silver linings!”
Then, on Sunday, Kenworthy and Goepper put on their skis. Kenworthy’s family held rainbow pride flags, and they watched as he advanced through qualifying and then into the finals — three chances to post a big score. But none of his runs went off well, and after the final one, when his medal chances were extinguished, somebody in the crowd yelled, “It’s all right, Gussie,” and another person yelled, “We love you!”
“Medaling would have been icing on the cake, but there is so much more to come,” Kenworthy’s boyfriend, Matt Wilkas, said.
Goepper had his family there, too, three siblings and his parents, and they had seen his four years up close. He had left the recovery center in 2015 somehow in better shape. He found others at the center who could relate to his experience. He stopped drinking. He started exercising more. Along the way, he started caring about skiing again. And soon, he was once again back in the spotlight.
His Olympics came down to a final chance. Among 12 people in the finals, Goepper was in eighth place after two runs. So he decided to go for it — three big jumps down the homestretch, and when he landed perfectly after the final 1440, the judges gave him a score of 93.60. It would stand as the second-best run of the day, behind the 95.00 of Norwegian gold medal winner Oystein Braaten.
After the medal ceremony, Goepper moved from one interview station to the next, draped in the American flag. He was excited to talk about everything — his mind-set at the end, and the tricks he pulled off, and what it felt like to have his family here. He said his plan after the Games was to spend time with friends, and “capitalize on this moment,” and do what he had to with the media, and stay humble and focused. He said he loved skiing, and he would get back into competitions as quickly as possible, because it was smart to have a plan. “Just getting back to work,” Goepper said matter-of-factly, and then he headed off to see his family, done with these Olympics, a two-time medalist walking off into the next four years.
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