PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Red Gerard was scared.
That’s what he told fellow rider Stale Sandbech of Norway after putting down his gold-medal run in the second-ever Olympic men’s snowboard slopestyle competition in Sochi.
Only, Gerard didn’t know at the time that he was going to become the youngest Olympic snowboarding champion of all time and the first U.S. medalist at these Games.
The 17-year-old hadn’t even seen his score yet. Sandbech, the 2014 Olympic silver medalist behind upset champion Sage Kotsenburg, put his left arm around the latest American surprise.
“I told him it was sick, and he was going to get in first,” Sandbech said. “He was just confused, happy, overwhelmed, I guess.”
Like Kotsenburg in 2014, Gerard used his own unique flair to top a field of more decorated riders. He chose off-path features on the rail and jump sections that others ignored.
On those three jumps, Gerard landed a switch backside 1260 on an angled kicker to the side. Then he spun a double cork off the left quarter pipe instead of the traditional center kicker the other riders used. Then, finally, a triple cork 1440, showing that he had the trick that’s a calling card of the heavy hitters to come.
The score: 87.16 points. Gerard went into first by 1.96 points over Canadian Mark McMorris.
Gerard had not won the gold medal yet – the event’s three favorites were still to come.
The sixth of seven kids who grew up riding in his Colorado backyard walked on cloud nine out of the finish corral and toward U.S. coaches. First, he stopped by IOC president Thomas Bach.
“That was scary, very scary,” Gerard told Bach.
“How did you double your points?” Bach asked, referencing that Gerard’s first two runs were 43- and 46-point duds.
“I don’t know, honestly,” Gerard responded. “That’s up to the judges.”
Gerard shook Bach’s hand, said nice to meet you, and trotted back toward the finish area where the three men who were supposed to beat him took the final three runs of the competition.
The gold medal was supposed to go to Canada or Norway, just like in 2014. The final three riders combined to win the last seven X Games slopestyle titles. Gerard’s best X Games finish was fourth.
It could have been Marcus Kleveland, the first man to land a quad cork, trying to become the first Norwegian to win an Olympic snowboarding title.
Norway owns more Winter Olympic medals than any other nation. But its greatest snowboarder, Terje Haakonsen, boycotted the sport’s debut at the 1998 Nagano Games as an act against the International Ski Federation becoming snowboarding’s governing body.
On a day when the men’s downhill, with two Norwegian favorites, was postponed, it was the perfect opportunity for Kleveland to make a landmark moment in his nation’s sports history.
But Kleveland was sixth.
It could have been McMorris, Max Parrot or Seb Toutant getting Canada’s third snowboarding gold and its biggest since Ross Rebagliati won the very first Olympic snowboard event in Nagano in 1998 (and was briefly stripped of it for a marijuana positive).
It also would have been redemption for Canada, which had the talent to sweep the podium in Sochi.
“The Canadians – we are the guys to beat,” Toutant reportedly said going into Sochi.
Parrot and Toutant both called out Shaun White for dropping out of slopestyle in Sochi, saying he was ducking the competition. Parrot and Toutant then finished fifth and ninth, while McMorris was the top Canadian in third (admirably, after less than two weeks after breaking a rib at X Games).
On Sunday morning, McMorris, who nearly died in a backcountry crash 11 months ago, could not improve his score in his last run. He remained in second.
Parrot, an X Games slopestyle champion in 2014 but better in big air, was the last man to drop in. Gerard watched on the big screen from the finish corral.
“He’s gonna land, he’s gonna land,” Gerard said as Parrot went through the rails toward his forte, the jumps.
Parrot did land, capping his run with a triple cork 1440. NBC Olympics’ Todd Richards called it immaculate.
Gerard said nothing as he waited for Parrot’s score. All that could be heard was “Welcome to the Jungle” on the loudspeakers. He clasped his gloves above his head. Waiting. Waiting. Then he covered the sides of his goggles.
Parrot’s score: 86.00. Silver for the Canadian.
It slowly hit Gerard. He carefully removed his helmet and high-fived and hugged.
“I won the Olympics,” he said. “This is a dream, dude.”
The Olympics were never in Gerard’s dreams in those backyard days. Not when he took breaks from riding to gorge on his famous sister’s potato-chip chicken and homemade sushi
“Red doesn’t know the size of the Olympics,” Gerard’s dad, part of a family and friends crew of 18, said in the first row of standing spectators. “That generation that really hasn’t watched TV. It was always smartphone stuff. So he never really watched the Olympics. I kept telling him, this is a big deal. You want to do well in it. He said, oh, whatever, X Games is a bigger deal to me. Dew Tour is a bigger deal.”
Which brings it back to Kotsenburg, who watched his young friend win while on a snowboard filming trip in Europe.
Gerard and Kotsenburg spoke at X Games two weeks ago, but not really about the Olympics, and have been texting this past week.
“RED JUST WON THE OLYMPICS!!” Kotsenburg texted at about 3:45 a.m. in Italy. “Just got the craziest déjà vu of all time.”
Kotsenburg retired at age 23, choosing the filming route over attempting to defend the first Olympic slopestyle title.
Could Gerard do the same?
“I honestly cannot tell you,” Gerard said. “Right now, I definitely want to go film snowboarding, but I don’t know how I’m going to feel in three or four years.”