KULKEA Athlete and Pride of the Midwest Nick Goepper Plans to Go Big in South Korea.
“Success is very much the intersection of luck and hard work.”
–Dustin Moskovitz, Facebook co-founder
With all due respect to the Roman philosopher Seneca, who said “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” slopestyle maestro Nick Goepper knows he was truly lucky to discover skiing at an early age. After all, Goepper grew up in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which is never going to be known as a skiing hotbed.
But close to his family’s home in southeastern Indiana was, of all things, a ski hill.
“I grew about 10 minutes away from this little hill, Perfect North Slopes, which is right in the Ohio River Valley, about 20 minutes from Cincinnati, Ohio,” said Goepper. “I got started skiing when I was about five, and skied from 5 to 10, just recreationally.
“My parents liked to keep us busy. I had some time during the weekdays, so I would take ski lessons on the weeknights at Perfect North,” he said. “I got very lucky. It got cold enough there to make snow, but we never really got tons of natural snowfall.”
Another fortuitous turn was that the owner of Perfect North had a son who enjoyed freestyle skiing, and convinced his father to build “a pretty sweet terrain park,” said Goepper.
“There was also an older generation of guys that were all park skiers who I really looked up to growing up,” he said. “A couple of local Indiana guys, like Tad Feiss and Richie Fahey, went out and did the X Games once or twice. They didn’t make it big, but it was inspiring nonetheless.”
Today, the 23-year-old Goepper is inspiring a new generation of freestyle skiers. He is articulate and intelligent, with a clear vision of who he is, where he came from, and where he’s going. The Kulkea-sponsored skier is on the cusp of his second Olympics, and looking to improve on his performance at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, where he finished with a bronze medal.
“I was really young, I was 19,” said Goepper. “I was coming off a great season. I won the X Games and won the Dew Tour, and was expecting to win the Olympics. I went, and got a bronze.
“Initially, it was a little upsetting for me, being as competitive as I am. The aftermath of the Olympics was a bit of a whirlwind – a lot of media, a lot of attention, a lot of obligations pulling you in a lot of directions,” he said. “As a 19-year-old, I was very, very overwhelmed. Because of my immaturity and my priorities, things got a little out of control at times. But I learned a lot from that experience, and it made me grow up a little bit. Especially afterwards, reflecting on it.
“Going into this next Olympics, I’m still gunning for gold. Absolutely. That’s the only standard I set for myself. And I’ll be able to handle it a bit more maturely this time.”
PyeongChang, South Korea, is the latest stop in a dizzying ride that started with Goepper tearing up the terrain park at Perfect North Slopes. Goepper credits his parents, Linda and Chris, with giving him every opportunity to succeed. Though he spent one season racing NASTAR, Goepper admits “I was always looking over my shoulder at the terrain park and seeing all my buddies skiing on the rails.”
“I was like, I don’t really want to be here” on the racecourse, he said. “I want to be over at the park. So, aside from that one year of racing, I was pretty much a park rat from Day One.”
Eventually, Goepper hit a plateau, and realized by his freshman year in high school that he needed to make a significant change if he was going to take his innate physical gifts to another level.
“It was a combination of luck, and passion and hard work,” he said. “When I was 15, I told my parents that I wanted to chase a career as a pro. I don’t want to do this in Indiana.
“I almost gave them an ultimatum,” said Goepper. “Because I was so passionate about it, and so devoted to it, my parents really aided me in searching for people to help me. We came across an opportunity to go to Windells Academy, a little ski academy at the base of Mount Hood in Oregon. They gave me a full scholarship to go there, which is incredible.”
Leaving home wasn’t easy, but it was necessary for the young Slopestyler to realize his full potential.
“My mom saw how passionate I was about skiing at a very young age,” said Goepper. “She knew how crushed I would be if I didn’t at least try to chase my dream. So, for her, it was more comforting to let me go and let me chase my dream, then to have me stay in Indiana and be upset because I couldn’t.”
At Windells Academy, Goepper met Mike Hanley, a coach who has had “a huge, positive influence in my life.”
“He really helped develop my skills,” said Goepper. “That’s when the snowball started to roll down the hill, and get bigger and bigger. Then I got my first X Games invite, in Europe. I almost got DFL (last place), and that was fun for a first experience. I got second in my first X Games Aspen. From there, I just kept going on a roll.”
That roll was fueled by Goepper’s ambition, and work ethic.
“I was always pretty competitive as a kid, and part of that was ingrained by my parents,” he said. “It’s how I was raised. It made me unique as a kid.
“I always fantasized about being a pro athlete. When I found skiing, it was a niche little sport that virtually none of my friends did. I had my ski friends, and I had my school friends,” said Goepper. “It made me unique, and it made me kind of special. And I liked that. I was good at something that not a lot of people did. And I just ran with that.”
“I worked really hard at it, and got pretty competitive with it,” he said. “But when you get to the world stage, you find out ‘Hey, I guess there are a few people who do this. And they’re all really damn good.'”
Passion also drives Goepper’s ingenuity, an essential component of an artistic sport like slopestyle.
“It happen at such a young age, because I’ve always been a very idea-oriented person,” said Goepper. “Executing those ideas, and displaying them to my friends and family, that’s something I get to do now on the world stage, at the Olympics.”
If there was a turning point in Goepper’s meteoric rise, it was his first X Games Aspen, when he was only 17.
“I had a killer run,” said Goepper with a subtle laugh. “I was doing all 4-way doubles on the jumps. I had good rails, I was skiing great. I landed my second run, and got like a 93, and was in first place.
“So I’m sitting at the bottom, and Tom Wallish was the drop after me,” he said. “I thought, ‘All right, this is a Cinderella moment. I’m gonna win X Games as a 17-year-old.’ That’s what I was expecting was going to happen. This is my time. This is what I’ve been praying about at night, and the universe is going to give me my moment. Then Tom dropped in, landed a killer run, and got a 96 and bumped me to second.
“It was really humbling moment,” said Goepper. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m having the time of my life, I just got second place in my first-ever X Games in Aspen, and I’m on Cloud 9. But it’s still not good enough.’ It was amazing, but it was humbling at the same time. It gave me that taste of reality, like, OK, at this level, I’ve got to work even harder, I’ve got to have better tricks, I have to smoother style. So I cam back the next year and won.”
Coming into the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, Goepper will have to bounce back from another X Games Aspen disappointment. Sitting in third place after the qualifying rounds, Goepper stumbled in the finals, finishing 7th overall. However, he expects to call on the maturity he’s developed over the past four years.
“My mindset going in to the Olympics is to stay healthy and just control the controllables,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of my training and preparation already. I’ve put a lot of the labor in.
“More than anything, I’m just going to eat healthy food, get a good night’s sleep, and socialize with people I love and keep my mind happy, and then let my body and muscle memory do the rest of the work.”
And slopestyle fans can set their DVRs now for the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, China, because Goepper plans to be there.
“I’m an eternal optimist on that front. I like to think that the best is always yet to come,” said Goepper. “I would like to continue competing for a number of years. First and foremost, I want to love this sport for as long as I do it. If I love it, I can push myself to do it for a long time.
“I would say I’m in my prime now, and I’d like to stay here for another Olympics, if not two more. If I did another two Olympics, I’d be 31, I think that’s doable,” he said. “(Snowboarder) Shawn White is one of my biggest inspirations, and he’s 31, and he’s still crushing it. And that’s really cool.”
Photo: Christian Pondella ESPN IMAGES