PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — The grand plan when Red Gerard and his brothers set down rails and attached a tow rope to a dirt bike to fashion a snowboard park in their backyard wasn’t all that grand.
“Just having fun snowboarding,” Gerard explained.
Look where all that fun landed him.
The 17-year-old snowboarder from just outside of Breckenridge, Colorado, won the Olympic gold medal in slopestyle Sunday, courtesy of a nimble, creative ride through a wind-swept course that left almost everyone else scrambling to keep their footing.
Gerard captured America’s first gold medal of the Pyeongchang Games — first medal of any color, in fact — and will soon go on a victory tour he never saw coming, even if the rowdy, red-white-and-blue mosh pit full of friends and family at the bottom envisioned it all along.
“I said it from Day 1,” said Brendan Gerard, one of Red’s five older siblings. “The kid was 2 years old when we started him snowboarding. I can recall him falling down the hill at 2 and him dragging ass behind me. Gave it two weeks, and he started moving faster. By 6, it was inevitable he was going to be something huge.”
Thanks to a blustery wind that swirled upward from the bottom of the mountain, “huge” wasn’t the word of the day on a course already designed to reward technical tricks on the rails and interesting choices below as opposed to sheer massiveness on the jumps.
That couldn’t have suited Gerard much better.
Listed at 5-foot-5 and 116 pounds (1.65 meters and 53 kilograms), he does not overpower courses and slam down landings the way that, say, silver and bronze medalists Max Parrot and Mark McMorris of Canada often do. Instead, Gerard relies on the quick reflexes he learned in the tight quarters of his backyard, which is visible from Interstate 70 down below, and where neighborhood kids feel free to pop in unannounced to put down a few runs.
The top of the Olympic course is also tight. Unlike most of the other 10 finalists, Gerard didn’t pick the straightest, easiest path through the rails. Instead, he mixed and matched with a variety of lobs and turns over rails and jibs with some cool grabs to match. He was the only contender to fly over a goal post feature in the top section.
“Everyone in the contest was worried about the wind and stuff,” said Gerard’s friend and Olympic roommate, Kyle Mack, who loaned Gerard his jacket as the winner-to-be rushed out the door shortly after a 6 a.m. wake-up call. “I kept telling him, ‘Don’t think about it. Do the run you know you have to do.’ He went out and put it down flawlessly.”
On the second-to-last jump, Gerard took a risk by trying a 1080-degree jump off the quarterpipe side of the kicker instead of going straight through the jump and flying higher. The risk is that the landing won’t create enough speed to take into the last ramp, but that worked out fine, too. Gerard closed with a backside triple-cork 1440, and his only thought while in the air was: “Just don’t blow it.”
He didn’t, and the scene at the bottom was wacky in a way that only the Olympics can dream up. After his first-place score of 87.16 flashed, and with a handful of riders still up top, there was 17-year-old shredder Red Gerard kibitzing with none other than IOC President Thomas Bach.
What in the world did those guys talk about?
“He was like, ‘What were you thinking during all those spins?’ And I was like, ‘I just want to land a run, that’s about it,’” Gerard said.
A simple enough plan, and one very fitting for a kid who came to his first Olympics wide-eyed and unaware of the way it could change his life.
From here, he will travel back to the West Coast for the post-victory TV appearances and sponsor shoots. Then, he’s coming back to South Korea for the Olympic debut of Big Air, where he could become only the second snowboarder to win two medals at the same Olympics.
Not a bad prospect for a guy who first stepped into a snowboard for fun, not glory.
“Cool to see,” said Canadian Sebastien Toutant. “Everyone’s trying to win and do good. But he actually enjoys snowboarding and you can see it. He’ll snowboard until he can’t snowboard.”
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed to this story.