With less than a year until the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, we caught up with Team PowerBar member and professional freeskiier Nick Goepper. At 22 years old, Nick is already a four-time Winter X-Games medalist (3 gold and 1 silver) and a 2014 Olympic Bronze medalist in Slopestyle. He burst onto the scene in 2012 and has been atop most of the major podiums since. An injury kept him off the snow in 2016, but he’s back on course and looking to create some more waves in 2017.
Coming off his first ever win in a pipe contest, we caught up with Nick to learn what it takes to be one of the world’s most dominant freeskiiers.
How did you first get introduced to freeskiing?
Growing up, I played a variety of sports- football, soccer, baseball, swimming, I was a super competitive kid. I loved traditional sports but I also loved action sports. I’m an adrenaline junkie, so I was always jumping off park benches, diving boards, and trampolines. I started skiing at age 5, and would sell candy bars in order to pay for my lift tickets. I was only introduced to freeskiing at 10 or 11, when I found a terrain park in Indiana. I remember thinking those guys jumping off rails were gods. As I spent more time in the park, I absolutely loved it wanted to keep doing it. I got my first big air at 11, and did little events in the Midwest. The excitement of the competition got me started and the thrill of big airs kept me going.
When I was 15, I moved to Mount Hood, Oregon to attend the Windells Academy. As I got more serious about skiing, each year I improved. I got better sponsors, and it all kind of snowballed when I went to the Olympics. I would say the Olympics defines the first phase of my career as a professional freeskiier.
What separates the top freeskiiers from the rest of the pack?
The really good freeskiiers, love it more. They take it more personally and have a better relationship with the sport. To put it simply, they spend more time doing it. They spend a lot of time in their boots and on their skis not because they have to but because they want to. I don’t really believe in the idea of being a “natural” or being “talented”. I think great athletes are great athletes because they dedicate themselves to doing what they love. For me, I was a little more adventurous than my friends. I was already doing a lot of extreme sports so when I started freeskiing, I just wanted to go as big as possible and haven’t really stopped since.
What’s the most difficult part of learning a new trick? There must be some fearlessness…
It depends on what stage you’re in; whether you’re new to the sport or a more seasoned veteran. When you’re new to the sport and trying to land a big trick for the first time, it feels like you’re taking a leap of faith. You have to trust yourself and go for it. To master the bigger tricks, you have to have the “grip it and rip it” mentality. At the elite ranks, you’re not necessarily learning crazy new tricks all the time but you’re making tweaks to link your tricks together. I work on perfecting the little things to put together a solid run. The latter is still difficult but it doesn’t have as big of a “wow factor” as landing something new for the first time.
It seems like you burst on the scene and then started to dominate from 2012-2015. Were you surprised at the amount of success you had so quickly?
Looking back, it was such a whirlwind. At the time, I was so focused on putting together a great run that I wasn’t really paying attention to how fast things were happening. I just remained focused on skiing and trying to improve. Other young pros have had really explosive beginnings so maybe in some way I was ready for it to happen. Although I’ve had some success, I still think I am at the beginning of my career. I’m still embracing what it means to be a pro skier and I’m excited to see what the next few years will bring.
What’s your reputation among the other freeskiiers?
(Laughs) I don’t really know, I’m extremely competitive when I’m in the zone. Whenever I’m in a competition, I definitely want to perform to the best of my abilities. In a competitive environment, I think it’s natural to size up who you’re competing against. In training, it’s different. You have to be patient to learn the tricks you never thought you could land. It takes time to link tricks together in a run. Even though I’m trying to win whenever I’m competing, before a drop into a run, I’m focused on myself and performing my best, regardless of what everyone else is doing.
I do really enjoy the competitions and the competitive side of the sport. Growing up, my sisters were always challenging me. We would have handstand competitions in our living room. They were gymnasts so they made an absolute fool out of me. I guess the desire to compete and to challenge myself was rooted in my childhood.
Slopestyle is newer sport in the Olympics (2014 being the first Olympics to host this event), can you tell us about your Olympic experience?
Contradictory to popular belief or what you expect to hear, I didn’t have that great of a time. After the Olympics, I couldn’t really tell anyone that. I felt like I was supposed to have some magical story and I didn’t really want to let anyone down. Looking back at the experience, I think I personally didn’t have that great of a time because I put too much pressure on myself. I think that pressure got the best of me on the slopes and I didn’t really feel like normal Nick. Fortunately, I skied well and I was able to get on the podium, which I was stoked about. I had won all the contests leading up to the Olympics and I was really expecting to win but I was very happy to get a bronze. Honestly, all the opportunities that have manifested from the Olympics has been the best part. I’ve met so many new people, it was a great learning experience and allowed me to grow and be better prepared for the next time.
I feel like I’ve moved past that first phase of my career, that young and naïve rider. Now when I’m at bigger events, I’m more relaxed and I appreciate it more. I don’t feel so “blinded” by the lights and cameras. I’ve become friends with the announcers and the camera guys so it’s more enjoyable and not so intimidating. It’s nice to not be the new kid on the block anymore. I’m still ultra-focused but I have a better perspective and appreciation of the social aspect of the sport.
You had shoulder surgery in 2016, can you talk about some of the mental and physical challenges that you go through when coming back from an injury?
Surgery and some personal struggles I experienced, made me realize that I needed to change my perspective when it came to balancing skiing and my personal life.
The balance between the two really defines what I deem the second phase of my skiing career. It took a year and half for the post- Olympic craze to wear off. Once life became more normalized again, I couldn’t have the same “all things skiing” approach in my life. I had to grow and develop both as an athlete and as a person. For anyone that’s coming back from an injury or whatever setback you’ve found yourself in, I would say work really hard, surround yourself with good people, and stay connected. It’s super important to continue your normal social habits. Isolating yourself from your friends and the people that support you is generally not the best way to get your confidence up again. Keep moving forward and keep working.
What are you most excited for going into the 2017 season?
Honestly, I’m really excited to go skiing. I really love the sport and am thankful that I get to go out and ski every day. I just spent a couple days in Canada. When I got to Calgary at 2:00 pm, I really couldn’t wait to get outside and ski. I’m stoked for the next round of contests to begin and the traveling to start again. Now, when I’m training and competing, I have a much fuller experience. It’s not so singularly focused like it was when I was younger. Now it’s about seeing friends and enjoying the experience as a whole.