Sage Kotsenburg went to the Sochi Olympics with one slopestyle win in the last nine years and a simple goal to “make snowboarding look cool.”
The Park City native captured the very first gold medal of the 2014 Winter Games and soaked up celebrity. Before the Olympic flame was extinguished, Kotsenburg sat down with David Letterman and ate a bacon gold medal given to him by Conan O’Brien.
Now that Kotsenburg is retired at 24, who could be the U.S. breakout star of the first weekend in PyeongChang?
Red Gerard may fill the role.
Gerard, like Kotsenburg, is a slopestyle snowboarder. Slopestyle is again one of the first medal events.
It’s on the Sunday morning after the Friday Opening Ceremony, which with the 14-hour time difference puts it on Saturday primetime on the U.S. East Coast.
Gerard, born in 2000, is younger than any previous U.S. Olympic male snowboarder. He is about 5 and a half feet after a recent growth spurt of a few inches. Not even 150 pounds.
He is also the towering American slopestyle rider at the moment.
He won the first U.S. Olympic qualifier in Mammoth Mountain, Calif., in February. Another podium finish in one of the final three qualifiers this season will all but send him to PyeongChang.
Gerard was also fifth and seventh at the last two U.S. Opens and 14th at his X Games debut last season. No American finished in the top six at X Games for the first time in at least 15 years.
So another U.S. gold in PyeongChang would take a Kotsenburg-level upset of Canadians Mark McMorris, Max Parrot and Tyler Nicholson and Norwegians Marcus Kleveland and Ståle Sandbech.
Gerard, whose Mammoth win came without McMorris, Parrot or Kleveland in the field, is younger than all of them and still finding himself in top-level contests.
“I don’t know how to describe my style,” Gerard, the sixth of seven kids, said last month. “It’s probably whack or something.”
Gerard said he’s been snowboarding since age 2. He signed with Burton Snowboards by age 11, soon after his family moved from Cleveland to Summit County, Colo.
His slopestyle skills were honed on the Gerard Farm. Or, if you prefer, Red’s Backyard.
That’s what they sometimes call a makeshift snow park in the family backyard in Silverthorne, visible from the Noodles and Co. across Interstate 70. Check it out. Red’s Backyard has 5,000 Instagram followers.
About three years ago, one of Gerard’s four brothers, Brendan, noticed the yard had the perfect slant for a snow park. They put in rails, which are the first features at the top of a standard slopestyle course.
A dirt bike with a rope towed the riders — not just the Gerard boys but now dozens of neighborhood kids — from one end to the other. There are even lights.
“I’d come home and ride the rope tow until night,” Gerard said. “I never thought I’d end up learning tricks in the backyard.”
Gerard’s mom had the local kids sign release forms.
“There’s been some injuries, a lot of concussions,” Gerard said. “I have ate some serious crap back there, for sure. It’s a dangerous little park.”
The setup is ideal. Gerard’s older sister, Tieghan, is a food blogger with 400,000 Instagram followers. She lives in a converted horse barn just below Red’s Backyard.
“Sometimes I’ll go down there and grab a whole bunch of food,” for everyone riding in the park, Gerard said. “And they’ll be savaging it down.”
At times, Gerard’s parents had to pull him out of the yard to do homework. Though Gerard is filming and competing around the world now, spending less and less time riding his home rails, the park stays at his mom’s request.
“The other day, I was talking to her about it,” Gerard said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if we can keep the backyard running.’ She was like, ‘Oh no, we’re going to keep it running.'”
In slopestyle judging, the harder-than-they-look rail moves can count just as much as the high-flying tricks off jumps at the bottom of the course. The Red’s Backyard rails may prove the training ground for an Olympic medalist.
“If you have good rails, you can take a lot off your jumps where you don’t have to do as gnarly as tricks,” Gerard said. “Hopefully, if I win a medal, I hope it has something to do with my rails. … Sometimes I don’t have enough speed for all the jumps. Weight plays into that.”
On Feb. 8, 2014, Gerard was coming home by car from a contest in Pennsylvania when he learned that Kotsenburg won the first gold medal of the Sochi Olympics.
“I was like, this can not be right,” said a flabbergasted Gerard, who has since worn his friend Kotsenburg’s gold medal. “He won, and he was doing some crazy grabs. That’s what really got my mind flowing on style stuff and making snowboarding different, to be honest.”
And Gerard is certainly different than the typical Olympic hopeful.
His biggest sense of accomplishment comes not from winning, but from filming snowboarding movies.
He prefers practice to competing. Halfpipe over slopestyle. Just about anything over media interviews.
No specific diet. Mountain Dew (another sponsor). In-N-Out Burger when he’s in LA. They know his name at the local Chipotle.
“But actually my favorite food is sushi, so that’s kinda healthy,” he said.
Gerard is serious about his concern for the future of snowboarding. Kleveland landed the first quad cork 1800 in big air competition at X Games last season (four off-axis flips with five full rotations).
“How many flips can you really do, how big can the jump really be — I mean, it’s already life-threatening — but without it seriously being insanely dangerous?” Gerard said. “What I’m hoping that happens is that we step it back a notch and deal with at least just triple corks from now on and try to put really good style into it.”
If Gerard’s rail prowess lands him on the medal stand on Feb. 11, he would welcome any portion of the fame that Kotsenburg received. But that’s not all he wants.
“Honestly, what I would like to do, is get a big RV and travel around all snowboarding spots around North America with a filmer and my friends,” he said.
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