This profile of Nick Goepper was published in 2014 before he won a bronze medal in slopestyle skiing.
HIDDEN VALLEY, Ind. – Since when does the road to a Winter Olympics gold medal go through Hidden Valley, Ind., and Perfect North Slopes?
Maybe this week.
The communities where Nick Goepper grew up and learned to ski are gearing up to cheer the 19-year-old at the Games in Sochi, Russia, on Thursday.
PHOTO GALLERY: Nick Goepper
Watch parties are planned at Hidden Valley Lake, Perfect North and homes around the area. Signs saying "Go for the Gold, Nick" and "Bring the Gold Back to Lawrenceburg" are posted on businesses and in front yards.
Greater Cincinnati has had plenty of home-grown Summer Olympians and even some gold-medal winners (Nick Thoman, Heather Mitts, Mary Wineberg, Bryan Volpenhein, Gary Hall Jr., Amanda Borden, Joe Hudepohl, Jenny Kemp, Darrell Pace, Jerry Lucas, Mae Faggs, William Hubbard), but the list of previous home-grown Winter Olympians appears to start and end with figure skater Russ Witherby, who competed in ice dancing in 1992.
Think about it:
What's the chance that a kid growing up in a private residential community in rural Dearborn County, Ind. – about a 30-mile drive from downtown Cincinnati – could become one of the world's top slopestyle skiers, jumping and flipping and twisting dangerously high in the air like a Shaun White on skis?
"It's pretty amazing," said Ellen Perfect.
Give credit to fate and those Midwestern values of perseverance and family sacrifice.
Goepper happened to live just across Indiana 1 from Ellen Perfect's family business, Perfect North Slopes, the only skiing facility within 100 miles.
"He started skiing here when he was about 5 years old and took lessons here," Perfect said.
Goepper skied at Perfect North for 10 years, but not so much on the downhill runs.
"He was always down at the terrain park. That's where we have rails and platforms and jumps - where the kids learn to do tricks," she said. "The good thing about being in a small area is that the kids would get hundreds of reps.
"We have classes now to teach the kids - a four-week learning program. But I think (Goepper) sort of learned on his own. Those kids learned from each other. He worked hard at it and got really good, obviously."
You might say Goepper and slopestyle skiing were a perfect match.
Family videos show Goepper was a daredevil even as a little kid, doing backflips off furniture and trees. When he wasn't at Perfect North, he and his friends and his younger sisters, who are gymnasts, were jumping on the backyard trampoline in the summer or building ski jumps in the yard in the winter.
Many parents would cringe at the sight, but not Nick's. They encouraged him. Besides, his father pointed out, his son is not reckless.
"He understands the principles," his dad Chris told WCPO's John Popovich. "You've got to do it 50 times off the course before you do it on the course. It's just like shooting free throws and being a gym rat. He's going to shoot 100 free throws before he's got to shoot five in the game."
Nick skied 12 hours a day on winter weekends and four hours a day after school.
The other kids at Perfect North could see he was special.
"I skied with him for a good hour a few years back at Perfect when he was in the terrain park," said Nate Forry, now studying geology at UC.
"Even back then he was an awesome guy, very nice and cool to talk to. He made everything in the park look easy, very calm and collected swagger about him when he was hitting features, like it was completely natural for him. Was also cool seeing people throw him compliments when he was hitting the kickers and rails and he was cool to each person and never acted cocky at all."
"I would watch him from the ski lift and be blown away," said Alexandra Hitter of Fort Mitchell. "That was probably five years ago. He always looked like he was having a good time. He was definitely fun watching."
Goepper came from a working-class family with four kids, so he had to pay his own way.
"He did all kinds of odd jobs – babysitting, yard work in the summer. He'd put up signs in the neighborhood. He sold candy bars. That's how he raised his money," said Diana Cheek, a neighbor and friend of Goepper's mom.
His father would drive him to competitions in other states. After starting at East Central High School, Nick wanted to go to a ski academy, but it cost too much.
Then his father lost his job.
But fate intervened again when Goepper happened to meet Kerry Miller, a godfather to young, up-and-coming skiers. Miller steered Goepper to the Windells Academy in Oregon, and Goepper got a scholarship and moved there when he was 15.
Guided for the first time by a top coach, Mike Hanley, Goepper's skiing career took off. With his successes came endorsements. He has a contract with Red Bull and Tide and he doesn't have to sell candy bars or babysit anymore.
What's more, Goepper won the last two Winter X Games and went to Sochi as one of the favorites in slopestyle's Olympic debut.
"If he crosses the finish line, I don't see anyone else who could beat him," Hanley said.
The buzz in Sochi is that Goepper will pull out a daring new trick – launching himself backward off the ramp, flipping and spinning 2 1/2 times simultaneously while crossing his skis and grabbing one of them from behind.
And, hopefully, hitting the landing.
He calls it the Switch Double Rodeo 900 Screamin’ Seaman.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the trick is named for Curt Seaman, a pro freestyle skier in the 1970s.
“It’s death-defying,” Goepper said. “The room for error is 0%.”
With White dethroned as the king of halfpipe and ski racer Lindsey Vonn sitting out with a knee injury, Madison Avenue has to be looking for a favorite new American golden boy or girl.
Goepper, a charming, handsome, grounded Midwestern teen, would fit the bill nicely if he doesn't launch himself like a Sputnik doing the Switch Double Rodeo 900 Screamin’ Seaman.
On his way to Russia, Goepper stopped in New York to appear on the David Letterman Show and traded Indiana jokes with his fellow Hoosier.
But through it all, it's clear that Goepper has not forgotten where he's from.
On the night after Christmas, he went to Perfect North and signed autographs and talked encouragingly to Indiana kids who want to be the next Nick Goepper.
He visited local schools before heading off to Sochi. At Tischenor School in Erlanger, Ky., kids signed an 8-foot good luck banner, and Nick hung it over the doorway in the family's living room.
"After he did that visit, the kids sent Nick a bunch of thank-you cards, and from that stack Nick will take a couple of cards and travel with them so he remembers what he's doing this for," his sister Kasey said.
Over in Russia, Goepper took notice of the signs around Hidden Valley and Lawrenceburg and thanked his community on Twitter.
"So stoked on all the support from back home. Lawrenceburg you rule!!" he tweeted. "Thursday is for you."
Hidden Valley residents are stoked, too. They're throwing a watch party at Willie's there Thursday night.
"We like to party in the Valley. We have a bar and a lake and a kid in the Olympics. That equals a party," Cheek said. "The banquet hall and all the rooms will be open."
Perfect was inviting everyone to the ski lodge at 8 p.m. to watch the delayed telecast on the new 80-inch screen.
"The food service will be open late and we're going to make a party out of it," she said.
But will anyone heed the spoiler alert by then?
Goepper's competition will be over before most Tri-Staters wake up Thursday morning.
Qualifications start at 1:15 a.m. ET (10:15 in Sochi). Finals are at 4:30 a.m. ET (1:30 p.m. in Sochi).
"Of course, everyone will know what happened," Perfect said. "We're hoping for a good outcome."
A gold medal would be a perfect ending.