Olympian joins Summit County group to encourage conversations on mental health, substance abuse

U.S. Olympian silver medalist Nick Goepper at a speaking event with Summit High School students, Thursday, April 5, at the SHS auditorium in Frisco. Goepper will be part of a panel encouraging discussion on mental health and substance abuse at the CMC auditorium on Saturday, April 27.
Hugh Carey /

Even our champions struggle with demons. Nick Goepper knows this better than most. The multiple Olympic medalist in freestyle skiing and Winter X Games legend battled alcoholism, depression and suicidal thoughts toward the height of his fame. Reaching the top of the mountain was not enough to escape the enemy inside.

Goepper will tell his story of recovery along with three other panelists at “Hopeful Lives: Living with Depression, Anxiety, Addiction Recovery and Purpose,” a speaking event and forum on Saturday at CMC Breckenridge. The panel will share their own stories of struggle and recovery along with a Q&A to encourage dialogue on mental health and substance abuse in the High Country.

The panel will feature Goepper, a five-time X Games medal winner, bronze medalist in freestyle skiing at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and silver medalist at the 2018 games in Pyeongchang; Ian Acker, founder and executive director of Salt Lake City-based recovery community center Fit To Recover; Betsy Casey, Building Hope program manager and mental health advocate; and Drew Mikita, associate professor of psychology at CMC Breckenridge and a licensed counselor.

The event is part of Building Hope’s larger spring messaging campaign meant to make Summit residents feel less alone about their personal struggles, to open up to other ski country residents about loneliness, anxiety and depression, and to illuminate a path forward for those seeking a better life in recovery from substance abuse.

Goepper has been open with his personal struggles in the wake of his 2014 medaling in Sochi.

He started losing his love of skiing, drinking heavily and questioning his purpose in life. The war in his head brought him to the brink of taking his own life.

But then in 2015, Goepper turned the corner before it was too late. He checked into a recovery facility, got clean, reforged his sense of purpose and pushed forward. A few years later, he won a silver medal representing his country in South Korea.

It’s easy enough to summarize that time of his life in a few words, but living through it was not, and his isolation made it worse. Goepper said that trying to hide his struggles was something he got used to in the pro sports world, where nobody lets their guard down.

“In that sort of a macho athletic world, mental health is not really spoken about much, currently,” Goepper said. “If anyone does struggle with things, whether it’s depression or loneliness, they don’t speak about it. We can definitely be a little more open about it.”

Goepper said that listening to others talking about their struggles and sharing his own was a big part of his recovery.

“I really enjoy when other people feel able to talk about it, and it really helps me,” Goepper said. “It feels like my responsibility to talk about it, and share my story. In a way, I do hate talking about it — it’s very uncomfortable for me at times, but it’s almost like I’m only getting better if I practice telling my story.”

Acker is used to telling his own story. Social alienation and trauma in his teens led to alcohol abuse and run-ins with the law. While in jail in 2012 for his latest mistake, Acker found himself getting ticked off by a fellow inmate who started blaming everyone else for his problems and taking no responsibility for himself.

The light bulb went off, and Acker realized that the guy was just like him — not taking responsibility for his own life, actions or mental health struggles.

Acker has been sober seven years since. He and a few friends in recovery formed a running group, and that became the launching point of Fit To Recover, which seeks to help people in recovery connect and find purpose and improvement through its four pillars of exercise, nutrition, creativity and community service.

Fit To Recover now features a community space in Salt Lake City where over 600 people meet up, work out, learn nutrition and how to cook, produce tracks in its recording studio and team up for service projects.

By building a community around self and community improvement, Acker found a sense of purpose he didn’t know he needed. His road to recovery only began when he started talking about his issues with alcohol and depression.

“When people don’t talk about it, they feel alone; when they do talk about it, people don’t feel as alone,” said Acker.

Fit To Recover created a space where people looking to break the vicious cycle of substance abuse could be open and honest about what they’re going through, and work with others to get beyond it.

“It helps feeling safe, feeling supported and having a community around you to hold you accountable,” Acker said.

Goepper, Acker and fellow panelists will talk more about their stories and struggles at the Hopeful Lives panel event, which takes place Saturday, April 27, from 6-8 p.m. at the CMC Breckenridge auditorium, located at 107 Denison Placer Road. The event is free to the public.

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