ASPEN, Colo. (AP) – In the aftermath of his history-making triumph at the Sochi Olympics – the non-stop parties, the interview on Letterman, the random stops to be adored by strangers – Nick Goepper kept coming back to two questions.
What just happened?
What happens next?
The freeskier had been given a good chance to win a gold medal in Sochi, but ended up with a bronze, and yet, to the outside, that barely mattered. He was part of history: The Americans swept the first-ever slopestyle contest at the Olympics and became just the third U.S. trio to accomplish that feat at the Winter Olympics.
It took the down-home kid from Indiana nearly two years to find a satisfactory answer for either of his questions – two years in which he would roam the country trying to find himself, contemplating suicide, entering a rehab facility, alienating, then winning back, the trust of friends and family, and rediscovering his passion for skiing. Through all that, Goepper also discovered that the Olympic journey was worth it, even if a bronze – or even silver or gold medal – would never, by itself, make him a happier person.
“My general takeaway from the Olympics was that of excitement, disappointment, stress,” Goepper says, “and things I definitely would’ve done differently.”
Goepper says at the end of the Olympic celebrations he found himself in “a crazy depression,” with zero motivation, “just this weird, sort of nothingness.” He was reeling from what could be called “Post-Olympics Depression” – a not-uncommon phenomenon for Olympians, especially those in sports that draw so little mainstream attention outside the two-week Olympic window every four years.
“He’d go sneak off to different college towns, party, meet girls. But the grass wasn’t always greener,” said his former coach and longtime friend, Mike Hanley. “And the whole idea of competing, skiing, training, it seemed like that had been maxed out. He felt like there was no place left for him to go in that world.”
He stayed up late. Drank. Did nothing with his days, or nights. Eventually, Goepper gathered up the energy to go train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs where things felt like they were getting back on track.
The next winter, he hurt his shoulder, then hurt it again later in the summer. That was, he said, the injury “that kind of broke me mentally.”
“I was in a zombie-like stage,” he said. “I needed a serious change that I wasn’t going to enact on my own.”
So much had happened during the Olympic experience that felt strange and out of his control.
For instance, only at the Olympics does the entire concept of winning become so twisted. The late Dale Earnhardt gets credit for the classic saying: “Second place is the first loser.” At the Olympics, though, second place wins a silver medal, and third place is a winner, too, in the form of a bronze.
“I was actually gutted for him and felt really bad,” Hanley said. “He was actually happy that he put down the run he wanted to. He seemed content. He had a plan and did what he planned on doing. The cards didn’t fall the way he wanted.
“But the issues didn’t set in until the media tour started going.”
It wasn’t that Goepper disliked the attention – the selfie-takers, autograph seekers and all the rest of the love. It was more that it felt so strange to be worshipped because of his prowess on the ski hill. Hanley tells of a time, shortly after the Games, when they got off a ski lift in Vermont, and Goepper was recognized by a gaggle of fans, one of whom told him, “Thank you for everything you’ve done for our country.”
“It’s nice and he was very grateful, but what do you say to that? ‘You’re welcome?’ He’s a skier,” Hanley said.
And while all the skiers – or make that all besides Goepper and fellow medalists Gus Kenworthy and Joss Christensen – were going back to skiing after the Olympics, Goepper was learning what fame was like.
“A whirlwind experience that I really wasn’t ready for,” Goepper called it.
Nor was he ready for what would happen when it was over.
His mother, Linda, said in an X Games interview that she knew there was trouble when Nick called her and said he was going to down a bottle of vodka at Lambs Canyon in Utah, which is where aerial skier Speedy Peterson had taken his own life in 2011.
Eventually, Goepper’s parents talked him into going to a rehab center in Texas. After a few weeks of going through the motions at the center, something clicked.
He started having conversations, reading more, writing a journal, taking more control of his life and thinking more about throwing himself back into skiing for not only this Olympic cycle but the next one, as well.
He was introduced to Jonny Moseley, the cutting edge, party-hearty freestyle skier of the 1990s, and was surprised with what he learned.
“Johnny told Nick he didn’t drink when he was in his prime,” Hanley said. “He told him when you put in the legwork on the front end, it’s a lot more fun to take advantage of it all on the back-end. That made a big impression on Nick. “
Goepper is rocking it in the lead up to the 2018 Olympics. In Korea, he’ll be favored to win some color medal again. If he does, he knows he’ll do things differently this time, though he’s not sure where the journey will take him. And maybe the point of the whole journey is that he doesn’t have to know.
“I think Nick’s probably in the best spot he’s been in since he was 15,” Hanley said. “I think he’s finally to a point where he’s fine just saying, ‘I’m Nick Goepper and I like to ski.'”