ASPEN, Colo. — Nick Goepper’s road to the Olympics really began on the doorsteps of rural Indiana, where he rang doorbells, handed out flyers to share his dream and offered to do odd jobs for neighbors for a buck or two.
And on the school bus, where Goepper took the bulk boxes of candy bars he’d bought and sold them to friends at a profit.
“Easy money. Too easy,” Goepper said.
Small little victories, a dollar here or there, helped him raise the money to buy a pair of goggles, eventually a pair of skis.
It bought more than that. It earned him buy-in from his parents, who lived paycheck to paycheck, at best, and couldn’t afford to spend money on trivial things.
“They had no idea what freeskiing was,” Goepper said. “Didn’t know anything about the X Games. I think it was more me showing to them I had the passion to do it.”
The kid who bummed rides to the 300-foot mountain near his hometown of Lawrenceburg, Ind., and got his fair share of strange looks for choosing tricky skiing over the more traditional kind — or for choosing skiing at all over the Hoosier state’s main sport, basketball — is a favorite at the Winter X Games this week in slopestyle skiing.
His quest for a second straight gold medal begins Friday.
Then, next month, he’ll be going for gold in Sochi, spiraling his way down the course in one of the new events at the Olympics.
He’ll be doing it in part because he sold his parents and his community on a dream that nobody in his hometown could really imagine might come true.
“It didn’t seem like it then, but now, they tell me they had their doubts,” Goepper said. “They didn’t have much validation about whether I was any good, or just good for the hill I was at.”
Goepper’s validation started coming when he would hit the road and compete in small local contests in the mountains of North Carolina, West Virginia and Michigan.
With his dad out of work, Goepper’s plan at 15 was “to mow lawns all summer and make 35 grand so I could go to a ski academy out East.”
Around then, he was introduced to one of the godfathers of the sport — the mysterious, but amazingly effective Kerry Miller — who steered Goepper toward the Windells Academy in Oregon.
There, Goepper connected with Peter Hanley, a former elite freestyle skier, who saw Goepper’s broad, lanky build and said the first thing he asked him was “why are you wearing shoulder pads?”
Goepper did not grow up in a ski factory and came to Windells self-taught and a bit bullheaded.
“I didn’t like him for a year,” Goepper says of Hanley, who remains his coach and one of his closest friends.
While working on an especially difficult trick, Hanley gave him some pointers that started to sink in.
“I finally did it right,” Goepper said. “I thought, ‘This guy may know what he’s talking about.’ That helped.”
Goepper started winning bigger contests and getting more attention.
“I use him as an example for a lot of the guys I work with,” Hanley said. “Everyone thinks everything comes easy for Nick now and he just dominates, flying around. But I remind them, his first time at the X Games, he actually didn’t get second like everyone thinks. He got 13th. It’s a process. And Nick has taken a lot of hits in the process to get to where he’s gotten.”
There may be better-known names — Bobby Brown, for one — in a sport making its Olympic debut. Hard to argue anyone’s skiing better at this point, though. Goepper secured his spot at the Olympics with a win and a second-place finish in the first two qualifying events.
Since then, endorsement deals have been coming in and Goepper is doing some things stars do — he was on the red carpet at the Golden Globes this month — though not forgetting his roots.
“I wasn’t known,” Goepper said. “But I guess I was convincing enough to people that they had a little bit of faith in me. I’m thankful for that.”