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.”
It seems like you’ve been focused on getting back to where you were in 2014 and 2015, health-wise. How do you feel?
Nick: “Yeah, that’s fair to say, couple of minor injuries in the last few years. And also I guess, in the whole grand scheme of health, I also had some mental health issues a few years ago and that’s all been sort of part of the same big picture of putting time and effort into those, everything from my mental health to my physical health and trying to get the whole machine working properly for this next year and every single year after that.”
What should the audience keep an eye on with free skiing if you qualify to compete in February?
Nick: “I would say you want to look for big air and just tricks that look spectacular, and one way to pick out a good run from a not-so-good run is to just look for imperfections in the execution of the trick. The competition is so good nowadays that any mistake that you make during your run can be sort of a downfall at the end.”
Linda, why do you think it’s important to be such a public Olympic mom?
Linda: “I think it’s important to be public and to be supportive for your kid. I had the opportunity, because we live in a small community, to help people. I know in particular we did a film four years ago with Procter & Gamble called ‘Raising an Olympian.’ People have shared that they have made decisions with their own kids based on some of the things that I’ve said during that film, which to me was sort of horrifying but very shocking to realize all of a sudden that you have this public voice that people actually listen to. So it’s been pretty daunting but it’s also been pretty cool.”
Are there specific lessons as an Olympic parent that have resonated with people?
Linda: “My message to other parents very often is: Stop being that helicopter parent, stop being the snowplow parent and let your kid grow up and let your kid make mistakes, because the only way that they’re going to learn how to deal with adversity in life is if they have practiced adversity. It frightens me to think that they might face a lot of disappointment — like with Nick if he doesn’t win — but the journey is what it’s all about.”
How has the bond between you and Nick changed in the past few years?
Linda: “I find with Nick in particular, if things are kind of rocky and if there’s a down day or there’s a problem that needs to be solved that is more emotional than physical, I get the phone call. And if it’s an exciting thing that has happened or there’s a logistical thing that needs to be solved or there’s a question about money or cars or whatever, my husband gets the phone call. It’s always good for me in a way if I don’t hear from Nick, because I know that everything is cool and everything is good.”
When Nick reaches out for those emotional questions, are there any of those conversations that stand out?
Linda: “A lot of our conversations are not that dissimilar to other teenagers, older teenagers, early 20-year-olds. The [new P&G campaign ‘Love Over Bias’] really hits on a lot of those topics: You’ve got a kid that’s a little bit different, how do they fit in, what is that emotional journey that you go through?’ Nick has never really fit in, and when he was younger he did have some physical capabilities that a lot of his peers did not have.
“A lot of the emotional struggles of Nick through the years, that’s been a lot of the challenge. We laugh, because sometimes we have to take a square peg and try to fit it into a round hole. I see the special part of what Nick brings to the table, but since it is often different than everybody else, sometimes it’s difficult.”