Teen Sensation Red Gerard Keeps His Cool to Deliver Surprising 1st Gold for USA

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2018

Red Gerard's victory in snowboard slopestyle gave the U.S. its first gold medal in South Korea.
Red Gerard's victory in snowboard slopestyle gave the U.S. its first gold medal in South Korea.Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

In sports, you can never go wrong with a guy named Red: Red Auerbach, architect of the Boston Celtics dynasty; Red Grange, NFL pioneer and college football legend; Red Holzman, who coached the New York Knicks to their only two NBA titles.

And now, the most improbable Red to reach the pinnacle of his sport, 17-year-old Red Gerard, who on Sunday stunned the world in snowboard slopestyle and delivered the USA's first gold medal of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Amid windy and bitterly cold conditions at Phoenix Snow Park, Gerard was the only one of the four American entrants to reach the final. He struggled to land tricks cleanly in his first two runs, and was sitting in a distant 11th place before his third and final run. There was little reason to be optimistic, since he had appeared to strain his back while wiping out on his second run.

Then Gerard exhibited the calmness that's become his trademark, executing a brilliant third run with the slightest of flaws. Judges awarded him a score of 87.16, good for a sizable margin over Canada's two medalists, Max Parrot (86.00) and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Mark McMorris (85.20).

Gerard's ability to cope with Olympic pressure could be due to his lack of obsession with winning at the Games.

"I just think day by day, so there was never really a time when I was like, 'I want to be an Olympian,'" Gerard told Ed Stoner of the Aspen Times in November. "It just kind of happened."

Swedish snowboarder Niklas Mattsson, who finished in ninth, described Gerard to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post: "He goes his own way all the time. He finds his own creative ways when he's competing. I love his style. Even if he's still growing, his arms are over here and there, he makes it look solid. He's going to be one of the big names."

Gerard wasn't even born when snowboarding made its Olympic debut 20 years ago, and he now ranks as the sport's youngest U.S. medalist.

Gerard started snowboarding at the age of two and progressed so rapidly that he was signed to a sponsorship deal with Burton Snowboards by 11. He started on small slopes in the Cleveland area, but it was his family's move to Colorado that sent him soaring up the ranks.

When Gerard's parents moved their seven children to a farm in Silverthorne, Colorado, one of his brothers recognized that the land was perfect for creating a snow park. The project was quickly energized with rails, and it wasn't long before kids in the neighborhood were getting towed to the top with dirt bikes.

Practices even lasted into the night after lights were installed.

Winter Olympians might complain that their sports require a constant hunt for suitable training tracts—but Gerard had one right in his backyard.

"I'd come home and ride the rope tow until night," Gerard told Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports in October. "I never thought I'd end up learning tricks in the backyard.

"There's been some injuries, a lot of concussions. I have ate some serious crap back there, for sure. It's a dangerous little park."

Gerard was nearly flawless in his pressure-packed final run.
Gerard was nearly flawless in his pressure-packed final run.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

There are stars among the other siblings, too. Sister Tieghan's food blog is moving close to 500,000 followers on Instagram. Brother Brendan, the one who realized the farm was a snowboard park waiting to be made, is also a pro snowboarder. And another brother, Malachi, travels with Gerard and shoots videos for sponsor Mountain Dew.

Gerard's one drawback as an international competitor is his size. Gravity and momentum favor snowboarders who are bigger than the 5'5", 115-pounder. But he compensates with the kind of creativity he showed Sunday.

Many of his daring moves were inspired by his friend Sage Kotsenburg, who provided a blueprint for Gerard. At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Kotsenburg also gave the U.S. its first gold medal of those games in snowboard slopestyle.

Gerard is the second youngest of his family's seven children. He trained with his older siblings from the start, and by the age of 15 he was making news on the professional circuit by landing such notoriously difficult jumps as backside triple-cork 1440s.

His parents and all of his siblings were on hand Sunday to see him win, and his cheering section held up giant cutouts of his face.

Despite his rough start in the final, Gerard paused to pose for photos with fans after his first run, a sign that he was following the advice of his mother, Jen.

"I told Red before he went out to compete this morning, 'Just ride like you're having fun with your brothers,'" Jen told Alyssa Roenigk of ESPN The Magazine. "'Keep it fun. It doesn't matter how it all goes.'"

Gerard will have another chance to add to the fun on Feb. 24, when he will compete again in Big Air. With another trip to the awards podium, he would become the first snowboarder to win two medals at a single Olympics.

      

Tom Weir covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist for USA Today.

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