There isn't much that riles Nick Goepper like being called a sellout. This is evident when he brings up the prickly rift between a faction of freeskiers who think the Olympics are ruining the sport and competition freeskiers like himself, whose careers are made by the numbers next to their names and who have devoted the past two years to reaching Sochi, Russia, where ski slopestyle and halfpipe will debut in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
"All the haters think we're just selling out and the Olympics are lame and we're just bowing down to The Man," Goepper says, steam rising from his forehead and Fall Out Boy blaring through his earbuds.
It is early December, and he is in the musky garage of a Frisco, Colo., condominium, pedaling a stationary bike that he bought the prior week on Craigslist. In two weeks, he will become the first freeskier to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, cementing his status as the gold-medal favorite in slopestyle.
There is one more hurdle to clear before he flies to Russia. On Sunday, Jan. 26, Goepper will attempt to defend his 2013 X Games Aspen Ski Slopestyle title, which would end a nine-year streak of different winners. A gold medal in either the X Games or the Olympics would be a boon; a sweep would elevate him to unprecedented status for a freeskier -- and surely fire up the naysayers once more.
"If I could talk to them," he continues in the garage, "I'd ask, 'Why do you care? Go do your own thing. Just get up and go skiing.' Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but I'd rather see you working on a new trick in the streets than telling us that we're lame because we got a fancy new sponsor and we're doing a FIS [International Ski Federation] event."
You could argue that Goepper, 19, is the poster boy for freeskiing's Olympic movement -- a rare talent with a blue-collar pedigree and work ethic who eschews cliques and spends every waking minute training to be the best in the world. Never mind that he grew up skiing a 100-acre pitcher's mound in Indiana.
Just how good is Goepper? His coach, Mike Hanley, among the most technically adept slopestyle minds in the world, believes no other skier comes close. "On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being he's using every move in his bag of tricks, Nick competes at a four or five," Hanley said. "Because that's all he needs. If you can drive 50 miles to get somewhere, why would you drive 100?"
Soon after his spin session in the garage, Goepper won the season-opening Breckenridge Dew Tour -- the first U.S. Olympic qualifier -- then placed second at the Copper Mountain U.S. Grand Prix in a swirling snowstorm. He could have won that, too, but after qualifying No. 1, he chose to scale back his finals run and accept second place since, as the top American, it still clinched his Olympic berth.
When he reached the bottom of the course, winner Andreas Håtveit of Norway asked him, "Was that an early Christmas present?" Despite the circumstances, pulling back is not Goepper's specialty. Like any athlete, he loves to compete but hates to lose, whether in ping pong, billiards or the X Games.
His best friend, Alex Hackel, who is three years younger than Goepper, cites a friendly treading-water contest at Mt. Hood, Ore., when Goepper kept kicking for an hour, refusing to concede. Sometimes, Hanley won't keep score in ping pong because he knows it drives Goepper crazy. "I like to throw a stick in his spokes," Hanley says.
Goepper's devotion started early. The oldest of four children, he grew up in a farm town called Lawrenceburg and often hitchhiked to the local ski area, Perfect North Slopes, 10 minutes away.
His talent, like that of many elite slopestyle skiers, comes from endless laps in the terrain park. Perfect North was open for only three months, but Goepper maximized that window. During the school week, he skied from 5-9:30 p.m.; on weekend days, he spent 12 hours on snow.
He landed his first double backflip when he was 13 and sold candy bars on the school bus to pay for his ski pass. Once Perfect North closed, he built a makeshift park in his backyard with PVC pipes and Astroturf, skiing it eight hours at a time, even in a downpour.
In 2009, Goepper met a scraggly red-bearded talent scout named Kerry Miller, who has mentored some of the top skiers in the sport, from Tanner Hall to Olympic aerialist Jeret "Speedy" Peterson. Miller, convinced that Goepper possessed elite potential, arranged for Goepper to attend an exclusive ski academy in Oregon on a full scholarship and became his guardian.
Goepper still lives with Miller and Hanley for much of the year, as do about a dozen other up-and-coming freeskiers from a handful of countries.
Walking into their seasonal living quarters feels like walking into a YMCA summer camp. Teenagers filter through in twos and threes as Miller, the gruff but well-meaning patriarch who calls himself "the COB" (short for Crusty Old Bastard), grills them on their training day and shares the plan for dinner.
All of them aspire to reach Goepper's heights -- Red Bull-sponsored X Games champion -- but the team's superstar treats his contemporaries as equals. He joined the U.S. Ski Team in part to better align with Olympic sponsors like Procter & Gamble (he has deals with Jif peanut butter and Tide laundry detergent, in addition to endemic ski brands like Volkl and Smith), yet he rarely trains or stays with the U.S. team, preferring his own lesser-known company.
He does that, in part, to stay grounded. What's the biggest change in Goepper's life since he won the X Games last year (after claiming silver in 2012, as a rookie)? "I guess I try to talk to more girls," he says. That's it? "I try not to let a whole lot change because I feel like if it did, it'd change for the worse."
Of course, that was never a problem growing up in Lawrenceburg, where his parents instilled a spine of humility in Nick and his siblings -- and still do. "When he comes home," says his dad, Chris, "I tell him to take out the freaking trash and clean your dishes when you're done eating."
Although some freeskiers debate the merits of coaching in a sport so rooted in freedom and informality, there is no question Hanley has been key to Goepper's success.
A 33-year-old former college diver with a master's degree in history, Hanley brings a thinking-man's approach to slopestyle skiing. For instance, it is not unusual for him to record what every skier does off every jump at a competition, in case Goepper needs a gauge for how to stand out.
Hanley challenges his star pupil no matter how well he's skiing. Sometimes, he gets another skier to dart in front of Goepper at the last minute while he slides a rail. The message doesn't go unnoticed. "You don't get better by doing stuff that's easy," Goepper says.
Perhaps the biggest chore for Goepper has been serving as a pseudo ambassador while freeskiing infiltrates the mainstream sports world. He says he has given what he calls his slopestyle elevator speech "a million times to a million different people who have no idea."
However, the naiveté works both ways. When his agent, Sheryl Shade -- who has represented Olympic champions such as Mia Hamm and Gabby Douglas -- arranged for Goepper to attend the recent Golden Globe Awards in Hollywood, Goepper initially declined. "What are the Golden Globes?" he asked. Ultimately, he accepted the invitation and met Mike Tyson and U2.
"The 'wow' moment in his Olympic journey was when Jackie Joyner-Kersee helped him with his tuxedo tie on the way to the show," his dad said.
Through it all, Goepper remains fixated on the golden goal at hand. He has stocked his technical arsenal, learning multiple triple corks (as well as a never-before-seen unnatural triple cork on a trampoline, which Hanley believes he could land on snow if needed).
During a U.S. Ski Team fundraiser in New York City, Goepper met Jonny Moseley, the 1998 Olympic gold medalist in mogul skiing, and asked Moseley if he had any advice leading up to Sochi.
"I said, 'Look around. All this stuff, the events and parties you're going to encounter, get it out of your mind. It'll all be there later,'" Moseley recalled. "'The main thing is, don't leave anything on the table in terms of training and preparation.'"
Goepper, it turns out, has already taken care of that.