Olympic Freeskier Nick Goepper on His Path to PyeongChang After Post-Sochi Struggles

People

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

At just 19, Nick Goepper made it to the peak of his sport in 2014 when he landed on the podium at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, alongside fellow American freestyle skiers Joss Christensen and Gus Kenworthy.

Returning stateside, however, had its challenges.

The bronze medal winner threw rocks at several cars in the midst of a bout of anxiety and depression while home in Indiana in August 2014, authorities said. He later came forward voluntarily with what he’d done, paid back his victims and apologized, and a criminal charge against him was eventually dropped via a diversion program.

Now 23, Goepper says he is not only older but wiser, with his focus now not just on improving his physical health but on maintaining the mental balance he had to discover off the snow.

It’s paying off: He finished second — the highest of any American — at December’s Dew Tour Breckenridge, the first event for selecting who will make the U.S. ski team at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.

Goepper recently spoke with PEOPLE about the last few years, and what he’s looking forward to should he return to the Games. (On Sunday, Goepper moved closer to qualifying for the 2018 U.S. Olympic team when he finished second at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix in Aspen Snowmass, Colorado — in the fourth of six qualifying events.

Asked if he has his eyes set on the top of the podium this go-round, his answer is short: “Definitely. I wouldn’t go for any other reason.”

He was joined by his mom, Linda Goepper, for the chat. This interview has been edited and condensed.

PEOPLE: Can you catch us up on some highlights in between 2014 and 2018?

Nick: “After the Olympics in 2014, it was sort of a whirlwind for me personally and professionally, but it was a really exciting time afterwards, a lot of fun times with my friends and my family and I got to do some really cool stuff. We were sort of able to ride that train for a little bit and afterwards. It’s weird — when all the Olympics hype dies down, you’re like on this crazy high and then all of a sudden it comes down and it’s back to normal life. It was kind of hard to get used to at first.”

For people who got an idea of who you were four years ago, how has Nick Goepper changed?

Nick: “Every year I look back at the decisions I made the year before and I’m like, ‘Wow, I would have totally done that differently,’ or ‘I can’t believe I went to that thing with my friend.’ Definitely I notice myself growing up more and getting wiser. I’ve taken my physical fitness more seriously lately. And I really think I placed more importance on my relationships with my friends and my coach and my family, and that was something that I took for granted a few years ago. I sort of assumed everyone was in my corner all the time.

“I’ve also just put a lot more things in perspective: For 19-year-old Nick, skiing was everything, skiing was the end-all, be-all in what defined me as a successful person. But now skiing is still incredibly important, but it’s like 50 percent of me now and the other 50 percent is my personal life, family, my hobbies and I’ve really tried to figure out how to balance it out more, because the highs were a lot higher and the lows were a lot lower when skiing was everything.”

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Mac Bohonnon plans to attempt the daring ‘Hurricane’ move to honor his mentor at the Olympics

The Salt Lake Tribune

She wants nothing more than to shut her eyes and remember every flip and every twist he did, with nothing but the sky as the backdrop to his brilliance. It was, at one point in her life, impossible to forget.

But now the gaps in her memory are far more frequent than before.

It hasn’t been the same since she lost her son, the daredevil, trailblazing Olympic medalist.

“I guess your brain shuts down to kind of protect you,” she said.

Linda Peterson does her best to piece together the intricacies of the high-flying stunt Jeret “Speedy” Peterson invented, perfected, the one with which he became synonymous. It takes her some time, but she starts to envision the takeoff, the landing, and every heart-stopping mid-air rotation in between.

The in-between is where the world held its breath, watching Peterson contort his body unlike any other, and where the world finally exhaled when his skis returned to earth, kissing the snow.

“What comes to mind is that it’s a real … you’ve got to be … it’s very precise,” she said, the bits and pieces of highlights returning. “If you mess up, you can be in big trouble.”

Peterson’s speciality was known as “The Hurricane,” a 3-second-long flight filled with five twists and three midair flips. The conclusion was the fearless blind landing. He spent the better part of five years perfecting it off the training ramps into the pool at the Utah Olympic Park to finally sticking it on snow in 2010. The trick won him a silver medal in men’s aerials at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

And when Peterson died from suicide in Lamb’s Canyon the next year after a lifelong battle with depression, the Hurricane seemed to leave with him.

But like Linda Peterson, Mac Bohonnon had been thinking about the trick, too.

While training on the same Park City summertime jumps where the late mentor developed the Hurricane more than a decade ago, Bohonnon, a 2018 Olympic hopeful, considered the 3-second flight, its spins and flips, its difficulty and significance.

“Why not?” Bohonnon thought to himself. “Let’s do it.”

An idol and friend

Speedy was first his idol, then a teammate.

Bohonnon joined the U.S. development team as a young teenager, capitalizing on his talent to fly high between trampoline jumps, twist, flip and land. He was almost 15 when Peterson landed the Hurricane in Vancouver, won silver and garnered worldwide attention. Bohonnon was at the bottom of the hill. He saw it live. Through it all, Peterson never ignored the youngsters, the future aerialists who aspired to someday maybe have the nerve to soar like he did.

“I think it’s really easy, I thought at the time, for athletes to kind of disregard younger athletes,” said Bohonnon, who grew up in Madison, Conn. “That was never the case with Speedy.”

Watching Speedy jump, Bohonnon said, “was just unreal.”

Now the 22-year-old aerialist and part-time University of Utah student is paying homage to his friend and idol in the most Speedy way: Going for it. Not blinking.

Bohonnon is crunching in less than a year’s worth of practice on the trick, which is daring to say the least — and in an Olympics year, no less.

“It made it a little more special,” he said, “for sure.”

Bohonnon estimates he did around 100 or so Hurricane attempts into the aerials pool at the Olympic Park this summer.

Incorporating a trick of this magnitude in such a short amount of time is a flight risk. He said this week that he’s still yet to land the trick on snow. Bohonnon will call on his muscle memory to kick in, and soon.

“Because that’s what it’s going to take this year [at the Olympics],” he said.

And Bohonnon, like Peterson before him, doesn’t tremble on the hill.

He finished fifth overall in aerials as a surprise 18-year-old first-time Olympian at the Sochi Games in Russia. Bohonnon won the World Cup overall title at 19 a year later in 2015, becoming the first U.S. male aerialist to do so since Peterson 10 years earlier in 2005.

When Linda Peterson found out that one of her son’s former proteges was going to try to incorporate the trick into his repertoire ahead of the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, she was left stunned and speechless.

“That’s an incredible honor that he’s doing that, picking up where Speedy left off and carrying it forward,” she said.

Now the pressure is on. Assuming Bohonnon qualifies for his second straight Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month, the Hurricane will be in his back pocket, ready to be unleashed.

“If anybody can pull it off and bring gold home, it’s going to be him,” Linda Peterson said. “It’ll be Mac.”


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