- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - Slopestyle skier Nick Goepper could very well walk out of Russia carrying the first Olympic gold medal in his sport.

What he will not have in hand: Ski poles.

The American freestyler hasn’t held a pole since breaking his hand at a contest in New Zealand last summer and hasn’t really noticed the difference.

“He asked me, ‘Do you have to use poles?’ I said, ‘No, not really,’” said his coach, Mike Hanley. “He’s spent so much time not using them by now, he’s just comfortable with it.”

Snowboarders, of course, do all their work without poles in the hands - one of the many details that separates the two sports, even though they’re partaking in the same events for the first time at the Olympics this time around.

They have always been part of skiing, and remain so, even though the idea of using a sharply spiked stick to push yourself while attempting the “Screamin Seaman” - a two-flip, 3½ twist jump while crossing skis and grabbing one - the way Goepper will, might seem a little unwise.

“The biggest place where they help is in the flats, where it gives you some help to make it to the top of the next jump,” Hanley said. “But overall, you don’t really need them for a slopestyle run. It’s just in the flats, he might look a little goofy kind of waddling around.”

Goepper doesn’t seem like the type who would care.

Growing up in Lawrenceburg, Ind., he never took to basketball. And when he started making the frequent trips to a nearby 300-foot mountain, he took no interest in ski racing. He just liked doing tricks.

“The racing, I thought it was too regimented, too standardized. I could never do what I wanted,” Goepper said. “The terrain park was so open, so free. I could ski at my own pace. I just found it 10 times more fun.”

His parents were poor, so Goepper financed the start of his career by making a flyer that described his dream, then going door-to-door and handing it out and trying to get odd jobs.

“Half the time, they gave me 20 bucks, just told me to get off their porch,” he said. “The other half, I got some work and ended up mowing lawns, staining decks, babysitting. … I wasn’t known. But I guess I was convincing enough to people that they had a little bit of faith. I’m thankful for that.”

These days, he can more than afford ski poles. He just doesn’t need them.

In the finals Thursday, he’s expected to try a triple-flipping, 1400-degree jump on the bottom. He clinched his Olympic spot by finishing first and second in the first two qualifiers, which provided a stress-free lead-up to the Games. He parlayed that into a win at the Winter X Games, which makes him the odds-on favorite.

Is there anyone who can beat him if everything goes to form?

“No,” Hanley said.

Maybe, though Goepper doesn’t have the market cornered on triples. U.S. freestyle coach Mike Jankowski says all four Americans can pull off a version of the hardest trick going.

If Goepper doesn’t master it, here are five people who might break through:

JESPER TJADER - The Swedish skier finished second in Breckenridge last month, then second again at an Olympic lead-up event in Switzerland. Is it time to reach the top of the podium?

ANDREAS HAATVEIT - From Norway, Haatveit told his dad he wanted to be a ski “tricker,” when he grew up. This was before freestyle skiing was really a sport. In Copper Mountain in Colorado, he was one of the few to beat Goepper head-to-head this season.

BOBBY BROWN - The American with the male model looks was the slopestyle and Big Air champion at the 2010 Winter X Games, and one of the biggest names in the sport when the discipline got the nod to join the Olympics. Still a threat.

GUS KENWORTHY - The American is a constant factor, and he’s been going a bit viral lately with the picture he tweeted of himself holding one of Sochi’s many stray dogs.

ALEX BEAULIEU-MARCHAND - One of the best for a country, Canada, that’s scooping up lots of medals at the extreme park. So far, the country has picked up seven in the actions sports.

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