- Associated Press - Sunday, February 18, 2018

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) - Nick Goepper wasn’t ready four years ago. He can admit that now.

A bronze medal in Sochi when slopestyle skiing made its Olympic debut gave the 19-year-old a taste of fame he didn’t know how to deal with. He partied with his friends back in Indiana for weeks. He drank too much. The edge that he brought to competitions across the world dulled. His motivation waned. Depression set in .

The journey back included a stint in rehab in the summer of 2016, some serious self-examination and more than a little growing up. Unassuming by nature, Goepper decided to talk openly about his struggles not necessarily to become a role model for those dealing with mental health concerns but simply to help with his own healing process.

Full circle arrived on Sunday, when he stood on a mountain in South Korea and once again delivered under Olympic-sized pressure, drilling his third and final run down the demanding course at Phoenix Snow Park. His score of 93.60 earned him a silver go to with that bronze from Sochi, a moment the now-23-year-old feels infinitely more prepared to handle.

Sure, he’ll head back home to celebrate. But only a bit. He’ll do the post-Games media tour. But only a bit. Best not to stray too far away from the sport and the structure that life on the World Cup circuit provides.

“I just love skiing and I love competing,” Goepper said. “I really want to get back to it as quick as I can.”

The proof came during what Goepper and gold medalist Oystein Braaten of Norway described as the greatest slopestyle competition ever. The top five all put up runs in the finals that scored 90 or better. That list didn’t include Goepper until his final run, when he looked down from the starting gate at the crowd at the bottom of the hill - a group that included his parents, three younger siblings and girlfriend - and focused on clearing his mind.

“I was just visualizing myself landing on the last jump, arms open, just screaming,” Goepper said. “It just all came to fruition.”

Emphatically. Goepper raised his arms after drilling his triple cork 1440, one that included both a mute grab and a Japan grab (basically three off-axis flips combined with four twists and a couple of stylish ski grabs mixed in). It was the same final jump he used in Sochi to assure the U.S. of a podium sweep, along with gold medalist Joss Christensen and silver medalist Gus Kenworthy.

Only this time, it propelled Goepper into second. Only this time, he feels prepared for what comes next.

“I just feel like I appreciate this a lot more because I’m a little bit older and I can reflect and reminisce on the last 10 years of my career and look forward to the next 10,” Goepper said.

And there will be a next 10. He talked openly about dabbling in some halfpipe in the near future and hopes the IOC will find a way to make Big Air - which the snowboarders will take on in the Olympics for the first time later this week - available for the freestylers in Beijing in four years.

In a sport that focuses on progression, Goepper wants to be at the forefront. The kid who practiced landing rails in the 90-degree Indiana summer heat as part of his offseason training is now a two-time Olympic medalist, one who insists the chip on his shoulder still remains. He grew up as an outsider of sorts. They simply don’t make world-class skiers in Indiana. Or at least they didn’t until now.

“Still got something to prove,” Goepper said. “I always have something to improve. That’s just the inherent nature of a competitive person.”

Yet there’s far more to Goepper than that.

While Kenworthy has openly and aggressively embraced his role as an avatar for change in the gay community after coming out in 2015, Goepper’s path has been lower-profile but no less personal. The fallout from coming forward about his battle with depression led to conversations with those in his inner circle who admitted facing similar issues.

“There were like three or four instances that really, really meant a lot to me, and honestly that was all that I needed,” Goepper said. “It’s really, when you’re part of that community, everyone’s really supportive and loving.”

Support that helped put him back on the podium in front of the world. The next few weeks will be a blur, one he believes won’t make him lose focus this time around.

“I’m really going to do what’s important after this Olympics and really capitalize on this moment,” he said. “But then I’ll get back to work and get back to doing what I love.”

___

For more AP Olympic coverage: https://www.wintergames.ap.org


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