PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Before 11:30 a.m. local time, the most precious metal grasped by a member of the Gerard family on Sunday was aluminum. Around their clan 18 strong was the detritus of a morning well-spent: emptied-and-crushed cans of Cass Light, Fitz and even a Budweiser, consumed to ease their nerves and celebrate their fortunes. Atop the slopestyle course at Phoenix Snow Park stood Red Gerard, the 17-year-old waif, their son, brother and cousin. Soon enough, he would add to that list another title: American Olympic star.
To the Gerards, all of this felt positively preordained, that those days watching him trundle down a hill as a 2-year-old or shred at 6 or hit magazines at 10 or bop around the rails in his backyard course at 13 were pieces of a prophecy. That he was special. Which is an unkind anchor to hang on any kid, though Red Gerard, who is a lot of things, is not just any kid.
He is a free spirit and an inveterate flirt and a bit of a weasel on the snow, snaking his 5-foot-5, 115-pound frame in and around those who dare to share it with him. And now he is an Olympic gold medalist, too, disregarding a blundered pair of runs to stomp his third and final try and take home the United States’ first medal of the PyeongChang Games.
The medal is not his alone. It is that of Conrad and Jen Gerard, who moved from Rocky River, Ohio, just outside Cleveland, to Colorado when Red was 8 and allowed him the opportunity to immerse himself in powder. It belongs, too, to Creighton and Trevor and Brendan and Tieghan and Malachi and Asher Gerard, ages 32 to 9, the brothers and sisters who never made a big family feel outsized. And it’s also for the American snowboarding community that saw a wildly talented tyke with hair that wasn’t quite as flaming as Shaun White’s but gingery enough to match his name and made certain to take care of him and not allow the perils of the prodigy to ensnare him.
He was, and still is in many regards, a kid – worldlier than most because of his travels and profession, still blind to all the things he doesn’t know. He epitomizes the cord-cutting smartphone generation, which doesn’t see the made-for-TV Olympics quite like its predecessors.
“I just didn’t really think I knew what the Olympics is,” Gerard said. “I kind of grew up just watching Dew Tour and X Games. I’d never really realized how big it is.”
The size revealed itself during the Opening Ceremonies and continued at a course perfectly suited for Gerard. Slopestyle combines three rail-laden features at the top that encourage flair with three jumps that emphasize spinning, flipping and amplitude. American Sage Kotsenburg won inaugural gold in Sochi with superior style. Gerard proved a worthy heir due in large part to his worthy air.
On one feature, he flew over a rail, a route none of the other 11 competitors in the finals took. On another feature, he hit a pair of rails, giving him extra style points. “He’s a very creative rider,” said Max Parrot, a Canadian rider. “Always taking a line nobody does, like he did today.”
Style alone wouldn’t have been enough for gold. After landing a switch backside 1260 on his first jump – he went into it leading with his opposite foot and spun backward – Gerard hit a trick that almost certainly won him gold. In addition to standard straightforward jumps, a quarter-pipe was built into the hill. Gerard was the only rider to use it, and his double-flipping, triple-twisting jump off it was immaculate. When Gerard finished with a backside triple cork 1440, spinning four times with three off-axis flips, he figured a medal possible.
He stood at the bottom of the hill, awaiting his score. “Oh my God,” he said. “I’m so scared.” Two seconds later, it popped onto the screen next to the course: 87.16, which put him in the lead. Gerard peered at the number. He processed it. He leaned in, then back. He put his hands on his goggles.
“Holy [expletive],” he said.
Three riders came after Gerard. Two struggled. Parrot landed a clean run but only mustered an 86, winning silver alongside countryman Mark McMorris, who took bronze. Gerard exulted. His family erupted. The agony of the day – of missing the first run because of an issue with their tickets, of staying warm in the bitter cold, of vacillating between excited and anxious, of knowing that Gerard was in last place until he was in first – evaporated in a cloud of joy.
“My brother is just Red,” Tieghan said. “He’s awesome. And this never will change a thing.”
Actually, it is changing already. Tieghan, a food blogger whose Half-Baked Harvest has nearly half a million Instagram followers, no longer is the most famous Gerard. When Conrad saw longtime Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar had tweeted about Red, he reveled. “Bernie Kosar!?” he said. “Holy [expletive].”
It was a holy-[expletive] kind of day, all right – and one that didn’t exactly start as planned. Gerard had spent the previous few days hanging with his roommate and teammate, Kyle Mack, watching Netflix, trying to keep a low profile. He had zonked out the previous night during an episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Gerard was supposed to get up at 6 a.m. At 6:20, Mack said, “Red, you out of bed yet?” He wasn’t.
Eventually, he rolled out, grabbed an egg sandwich with ham, avocado and cheese, panicked that he couldn’t find his puffy jacket, borrowed Mack’s and headed to the hill, where his future awaited him. All the Gerards had been waiting for this, even his 9-year-old sister, Asher, who is the closest in age to Red.
“He’s the best, right?” Tieghan said.
“Sorta,” Asher said.
She was sandbagging. Of course he’s the best. By the time Gerard finished his media obligations, Asher was waiting for him along with the rest of the family, some still holding cardboard cutouts of his smirking visage. As he signed an autograph, she bobbed about, a stars-and-stripes hat keeping her warm, a faux-fur jacket zipped tight, ikat-pattern mittens on her hands. When Gerard turned around, he lifted her, hugged her and said: “I love you, Asher. You look cute right now, huh? All Aspen’d out.”
The remaining crowd started chanting “USA, USA” for the youngest American male podium finisher in a Winter Games since 1928 and the first medalist born after 2000. And those might’ve been the sweetest words to Gerard’s ears other than what his father told him as he and Jen hugged their son simultaneously: “I’m so proud of you.”
All of them were, and they planned on showing their pride all over South Korea on Sunday night. Back when she was in college, Gerard’s cousin Abigail developed a reputation among her friends for consuming uncommon amounts of alcohol and partying deep into the night. Her friends coined a term for this practice: “Getting Gerarded.” Naturally, the family came to the slopestyle finals with a sign that read: “We’re here to get GERARDED.”
“We’ve demolished several racks,” Abigail said. “So we’ve been into this soju.”
When asked whether, in fact, the celebratory plan included “getting Gerarded,” Abigail lifted an eyebrow, as if there was even a choice in the matter, and Brendan piped in and said: “Full send. Full send, brother.”
He was a professional snowboarder once upon a time, too, and clear as ever are the days when Red was nothing more than a nuisance and not someone with the chance to be the first freestyle snowboarder ever to win two medals in one Olympics, which he could accomplish during the Big Air competition Feb. 24.
“I can recall watching him fall down the hill at 2 years old and having him dragging ass behind me, being annoyed to have a little brother back there being all slow and not moving very quick,” Brendan said. “Give him two weeks and he started moving faster. By the age of 6, it was inevitable he was going to be something huge.”
That inevitability became reality Sunday, when style met substance, when aluminum turned to gold, when Red Gerard introduced himself to the United States and the United States to the PyeongChang Games in the best fashion possible.
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