PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Red Gerard has never been afraid to do his own thing, to carve his own path.
So an Olympic final wasn’t the time to start following his competitors’ lead. Gerard’s choice paid off big, leading him to a gold medal he never quite expected to win.
The 17-year-old became the first American to medal in the Pyeongchang Games, putting down a creative, stylish and clean run here at Phoenix Snow Park to best a field full of Canadians and Norwegians.
Though not quite as improbable as Sage Kotsenburg’s win four years ago, Gerard’s victory came because he set himself apart from the other riders – namely by being the only one to choose a creative and more difficult take-off to a jump.
Rather than taking the second jump straight on, as all other riders did, Gerard headed into a jump off the quarterpipe, basically having him start his trick sideways.
“I think the side hit really helped because no one was hitting that,” he said. “The Olympics to me though, it’s just another snowboard event. I’m just happy it brings everyone together and we can have a good competition.”
Gerard was one of the highlights of that competition, with his third and final run scoring an 87.16, to edge out Canadians Max Parrot (86.00) for silver and Mark McMorris (85.20) for bronze.
After falling on his first two runs, Gerard deftly navigated the complicated rail section at the top of the course. As he did in qualifying, he did a straight air with a stylish grab over one of the rails.
On the second jump, he did a frontside double cork 1080 – an off-axis flip with three spins – before landing a backside triple cork 1440 on the final jump.
For Gerard, the decision to take the unconventional line was easy. He wants his runs to be unique.
“I realized my trick (straight) over it isn’t as good, so it’s like I would have got a fourth or a fifth and might as well try to do good while I’m here,” he said.
Gerard fit one more rail into the top section than Parrot, who was the last rider to drop in and who waited several tense moments to see if his run would be enough to top Gerard’s. But it was the quarterpipe jump that helped set his run apart.
“Red took a big risk of doing that and it paid off. I think the judges really liked that. He had a pretty creative run,” said Parrot, the top qualifier.
“He's a very creative rider, always taking a line that nobody does, just like he did today. I'm really happy for him.”
Gerard’s run also beat out a more technical jump section from McMorris, who did back-to-back triple corks on the final two jumps. While McMorris' run was more difficult, Gerard landed his more cleanly.
“From top to bottom, he was just flawless and smooth,” said Kyle Mack, Gerard’s U.S. teammate. “Not one bump, not one mistake.”
It was McMorris’ second bronze medal in the event, though this one held more meaning than the one he claimed in Sochi.
The Canadian has had two devastating injuries in the past two years, including a life-threatening back-country accident in March that left him with 17 broken bones, a ruptured spleen and collapsed lung. While the sport was progressing, McMorris has been rehabbing.
“I need to pinch myself,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t be here or should have some permanent damage from what my accident entailed, so I’m pretty stoked.”
While Kotsenburg was a more unlikely gold medalist four years ago, Gerard came into the Games as a contender for a medal after winning two of the U.S. Grand Prixs that serve as qualifiers to make the U.S. team.
With winds gusting throughout the morning, Gerard fell on his first two runs before landing his third. When he did, it set off a raucous celebration among the 18 family members who traveled to Korea to watch him compete.
“We all started snowboarding together and a lot of things had to happen for this to come down, so it’s truly, truly an amazing moment,” said Brendan Gerard, one of Red’s six siblings. “We all knew he had it in him.”
True to his mellow demeanor, Gerard wasn’t convinced himself.
After falling asleep watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine last night, Mack had to rouse Gerard from bed to get ready for the Olympic final.
“I had to play a little bit of a dad figure to make sure he got out of bed in the morning,” Mack said.
Now, it might be a while before Gerard gets back to sleep.
The Colorado teen didn’t expect gold but by doing it his own way got the biggest win of his young career.
“I can’t believe everything worked out and honestly I don’t think I’ve really had time for it to set in yet,” he said. “I’m just so happy I got to land a run and just to end up on the podium is awesome.”