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Winter Olympics: U.S. freestyle skier Nick Goepper conquers his demons and ends up a medalist again

PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 18:  Nick Goepper of the United States competes during the Freestyle Skiing Men's Ski Slopestyle Final on day nine of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Phoenix Snow Park on February 18, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images) 775095593
PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 18: Nick Goepper of the United States competes during the Freestyle Skiing Men's Ski Slopestyle Final on day nine of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Phoenix Snow Park on February 18, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images) 775095593
Published Feb. 18, 2018

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Nick Goepper met Jeret "Speedy" Peterson only once.

The larger-than-life Olympic aerial skier left a powerful impression on Goepper, an Indiana kid on his way to his own whirling fame.

So when it got bad four years ago, when Goepper felt so lost after winning a bronze medal in the freestyle slopestyle event at the Games, he got into a car and drove to the spot of a suicide.

Goepper thought about dying where the troubled Peterson had taken his life at age 29 on a summer night in 2011, a desolate area near Park City, Utah, known as Lambs Canyon.

In a macabre scene that underscores the pressure some athletes face when thrust into the spotlight for even the briefest of moments, Goepper went to the hard edge just the way he skied.

He drank a bottle of vodka and "just sat there, contemplating it myself in my car," Goepper said Sunday after winning the silver medal in slopestyle with a head-turning final run at Phoenix Snow Park.

"It's a very hard subject to talk about and difficult to understand, but it's just important to be genuine and heal and recover and just learn. Just continual learning and education and just stimulating your mind with new information about different things is so important for your overall well-being," he said.

Goepper, now 23, felt like his life paralleled Peterson's in facing the lonely times after the Olympic flame fades. Most Olympians return to their lives or capitalize on newfound fame. But some simply slip into an abyss that can be difficult to get out of.

Goepper was part of a whirlwind tour after he, gold medalist Joss Christensen and runnerup Gus Kenworthy swept the new slopestyle event that includes big jumps and sliding off rails. Soon, however, Goepper appeared to be another reckless action-sports star for anyone who didn't know the depths of his depression. He started self-medicating with alcohol and was arrested a half-year after the 2014 Games for throwing rocks at vehicles.

"I was partying a lot with my friends, kind of flying into this void," Goepper said. "Three weeks after the Olympics, I was like, 'What am I doing?' "

As his life spiraled out of control, Goepper gravitated to the compelling story of Peterson's struggles.

The three-time Olympian best known for his "Hurricane" trick, never could overcome the multiple challenges of his young life, even when sharing some of the demons publicly.

Peterson was sexually abused when he was younger, though he downplayed the episode as impacting his life. The skier pointed to the loss of his older sister Kim, who was killed by a drunken driver a few weeks before her high school graduation. Speedy was 5 at the time.

Years later as one of the world's best aerial skiers, Peterson seemed like one of the Winter Games' more colorful characters. But a year before the 2006 Games, a friend he lived with in Park City shot himself in the head in front of Peterson.

After finishing seventh in 2006, Peterson became better known for getting into a fight with a friend after the event. Later, he was hospitalized twice while trying to deal with depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Like many, Goepper came away charmed after his sole meeting with Peterson, who won a silver medal in 2010 in his last of three Olympic appearances.

"He showed me his silver medal, and he was like, 'You want to know what you can do with this thing?' " Goepper recalled. "And I was like, 'What?' He's like, 'You can't imagine all the chicks you're going to get.' "

Goepper knew Peterson's trials well. He related to them perhaps too much. Instead of landing jumps, Goepper landed in a rehabilitation center in 2015 because of his heavy drinking.

"That was a symptom of the problem, for sure," he said Sunday. "Unfortunately, that symptom got pretty bad at one point."

Goepper said he hasn't had a drink since 2016.

"I'm super proud just to be where I am today," he said. "I don't know how it got to the point, but there came a time when I pretty much had given up on skiing altogether and had given up on myself and basically wanted to end it."

Goepper has spent hard time working on his issues and sounded ready to rejoin the regular world while carting around a second Olympic medal. The skier credited family and close friends for supporting him to get past the demons.

"I just can't wait to just keep rolling and keep skiing and just keep hustling because I love what I'm doing," he said. "I'm going to do what's important after this Olympics and really capitalize on this moment."

Goepper scored 93.60 points after landing his final trick, a four-rotation spin off a big incline. It was just short of Norway's Oystein Braaten, who won the gold medal with a score of 95.00 points.

With medal in hand, Goepper had a plan, something he didn't have four years ago.

"I sort of wandered into this abyss but I pretty much know what I'm going to do now," he said.

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