[Red Gerard looking stoked, but in no way overwhelmed, by his Olympic victory. Photo: Sam Mellish]
A freckly-faced former child prodigy with tousled, reddish hair rocks up at the Olympics and blows away the competition, winning a gold medal before he’s legally old enough to buy a beer. We’ve been here before. Except that any similarities between Shaun White and Red Gerard, who’s just won the men’s slopestyle here in Pyeongchang, pretty much stop there.
If Shaun is a contest machine, a man who’s rarely seen riding his board outside of the Olympics these days, then Red is the opposite.
"If Shaun is a contest machine, a man who’s rarely seen riding his board outside of the Olympics these days, then Red is the opposite"
“Yeah it’s cool, it's been pretty fun being here and checking everything out," he said yesterday when we chatted to him after the qualifiers, totally unfazed by the size or scale of the event. And he seemed more surprised than anybody when he won.
“It's a little hard to believe for sure. I'm just mind-blown," he told Onboard and a scrum of waiting reporters. “Honestly I don't think I've had time to let it settle in." Certainly taking home the gold wasn’t something he was planning for, or at all nervous about. “I was just so excited that I got to land a run. It felt like a good run, I was really excited on it. But I was just hoping I would make the podium."
As for the significance of the occasion, Red seemed pretty laid back. “The Olympics to me though is just another snowboard event," he said. When one reporter asked him what Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee, had said to him after the win, he had no idea who they were talking about. “That’s the guy who writes The Big Mouth and The League and all that right?
Once every four years, the Olympics pushes a few individual riders into the mainstream media spotlight. They’ll be hot property as interviewees, appearing on chatshows, magazine covers and cereal boxes.
For the world outside of snowboarding, these people essentially come to represent the sport. So it’s heartening to think that snowboarding’s ambassador for the next four years is this mellow, impressively mature kid from Colorado who’s not that fussed about the games.
“It's good having someone like him winning today," said Seb Toots immediately after the contest. “It’s good for the sport. He’s a cool kid you know, he actually enjoys snowboarding and you can see it."
Stale Sandbech, another of the older riders in today’s field, agreed it would be “Very good. He knows what snowboarding is all about you know? It's not just about doing the tricks. He rides creative, he does his own thing and doesn't just copy the other guys."
Even Mark McMorris, who with his more technical but less clean run might’ve been aggrieved not to be standing in Red’s place, had nothing but nice words to say about him.
And then there was the manner of his victory, a super-clean, and very stylish run that prioritised using the course creatively over spinning to win. “I try to be a little different in my runs," he said, when asked about his choice of route down the course.
“I just look for different lines." It’s an approach that’s already earning him comparisons to Sage Kotsenberg, whose win in Sochi seemed equally unlikely. Comparisons that Red would welcome.
“He’s definitely an inspiration," he said. “I guess he comes into things just trying to have a lot of fun, and that's how I try and do things too, just have fun and hopefully land runs and then after that it's up to the judges."
As for Sage’s decision to pack in competitive snowboarding and concentrate on filming, well, that’s something that Red is considering too, at least in the short term. “I try not to think too far into the future," he said when asked about his next steps. “I'm more of a day-by-day sort of guy. But really after this I want to go film snowboarding pretty badly and just take two years to do that."
He’s not ruling out a return to the Olympics, and at his age he could potentially come back several times. But while he “really enjoy[s] doing contests and the practises of contests", he’s also aware that there’s a whole lot more to snowboarding than that.
Looking back through Red’s Instagram feed, that 21st century window into the soul, there’s a telling video that he shared just a few weeks ago of a young Shaun White being interviewed on CNN after his first gold medal in Turin.
“We were having drinks and I was getting snacks and taking photos at the back [of the plane] with all the stewardesses," Shaun is saying. The host interrupts him. “Wait a minute, drinks? You’re 19 years old." At which point he flashes a cheeky grin. “I’m talking about Mountain Dews baby!"
Red’s comment underneath the post is: “Wish this boy was still with us @shaunwhite". Well Red, you’re now that boy. For the sake of snowboarding, please stay that way.