PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Red Gerard saw Sage Kotsenburg two weeks ago. The Olympics were not a heavy discussion topic.
But Gerard will hope on Sunday morning (Saturday night ET) to follow Kotsenburg as an unlikely U.S. Olympic slopestyle medalist. The difference is that Kotsenburg was a veteran, while Gerard is the youngest U.S. Olympic male snowboarder in history.
“I don’t think I was too ready for it [the Olympics], to be honest,” the 17-year-old from Silverthorne, Colo., said after advancing to the 12-man final in fourth place in qualifying Saturday afternoon. “Every checkpoint you go through, you’ve got to go through a security thing, you’ve got to show your credential everywhere you go. I get frustrated. Everybody’s like, you’ve got to just keep your patience.”
Gerard looked unflustered at Phoenix Snow Park. Like the laid-back rider who has emerged as the best American slopestyler in the last year. He put down perhaps the most creative run in qualifying. The other three Americans did not advance.
A highlight came on Gerard’s rail section, where he tweaked an indy air over a hitching post that looked like it could have been done in his backyard.
“We all wear the same outfits, but you can figure out who Red is out of everybody,” teammate Kyle Mack said. “That’s what makes him special.”
Gerard isn’t as known for his tricks off the jumps, though he did land a backside triple cork 1440 to cap his 82.55-point run. This year’s course and scoring system both put more emphasis on rails than in Sochi.
The three men who outscored Gerard in qualifying are the heavy hitters.
Canadians Max Parrot and Mark McMorris and Norwegian Marcus Kleveland, who combined to win the last seven X Games Aspen slopestyle titles, are the clear medal favorites. Kleveland was so confident that he signed autographs for 10 to 15 volunteers during a 40-minute delay due to technical problems.
Gerard, fourth at X Games two weeks ago, need look no further than four years ago for inspiration.
Kotsenburg, who had one victory in nine years going into Sochi, was one of the last qualifiers into the Olympic final and then stunned the field with his Holy Crail.
“I never doubted Sage, but I wasn’t like thinking he was going to be the guy at first, but then we saw him in practice killing it,” said Norwegian Stale Sandbech, who took silver in Sochi and qualified in fifth place to Sunday’s final. “I think we could see it this year again. If you want Americans, I think Red Gerard is riding very well.”
Parrot said he’s seen Gerard emerge over the last year. The sixth of seven children, originally from the winter sports mecca of Cleveland, won the first U.S. Olympic qualifier last February without McMorris, Parrot or Kleveland in the field.
“This kind of reminds me more of Cleveland, actually,” Gerard said of PyeongChang. “There’s so much moisture there. It’s like East Coasty. It’s really cold air and all that. It’s a lot different. Where we usually compete is up high in the mountains.”
A large group of Gerard’s family and friends – one NBC reporter counted 18 of them – made their presence known at qualifying. They carried oversized pictures of Gerard’s head on sticks and one sign that read, “We’re here to get Gerarded.”
“To be honest, it’s a little nerve-racking,” Gerard said. “They all flew out here to see me. I better do something cool.”
Four years ago, Kotsenburg flew to Sochi with a simple goal: “make snowboarding look cool.”
He did just that and became a single-name sensation, sitting down with David Letterman and eating a bacon gold medal given to him by Conan O’Brien before the Sochi Games even ended. Gerard remembered watching Kotsenburg win gold while coming home by car from a contest in Pennsylvania.
“He won, and he was doing some crazy grabs,” Gerard, who has worn Kotsenburg’s medal, recalled last year. “That’s what really got my mind flowing on style stuff and making snowboarding different, to be honest.”
Kotsenburg retired at age 24 to focus on filming, leaving a gaping hole in U.S. men’s slopestyle. It has been the weak link among the U.S.’ traditionally strong snowboarding disciplines including snowboard cross and halfpipe.
If Gerard had not advanced Saturday, it would have marked the first time in Olympic history in any of those three disciplines that the U.S. failed to put a rider in the top five.
Gerard said that Parrot, McMorris and Kleveland have the tricks that he does not – like a quad cork or back-to-back triple corks – but he may have a creativity advantage.
“It’s just who can land it that day and all that,” Gerard said. “I’m hitting the [quarterpipe] side hit [on jumps], and they’re going straight over [the traditional jump].”
That creativity was rewarded on Saturday. Gerard’s double cork off the quarterpipe scored higher than any of the tricks done by other riders off the traditional jump in that same section.
Kotsenburg wasn’t able to watch qualifying while shredding around the Matterhorn.
“Will be up watching the finals and cheering my man Red on!!” Kotsenburg said in a text message. “So hyped for him! He’s one of my favorite younger shredders to watch.”