The seventeen-year-old’s unexpected Olympic slopestyle gold medal is a win for us all.
The world now knows the name Red Gerard, but the snowboard community that Red was raised by has been aware of his capability for quite some time. 2009 was the first year I encountered Red, a small body attached to a large helmet, in line for Breckenridge's 5 Chair. He was nine and had just landed his first 900. His goal was to learn 10s at 10.
Less than a decade later, he's the recent recipient of Olympic gold in slopestyle at the age of 17. It's a medal he wasn't supposed to win.
Competitive snowboarding has admittedly never been my favorite type to watch, but I've replayed Red's winning run like I would a good video part. There is something distinctly appealing about the way he rides a snowboard; it's fluid and candid. These traits are mirrored in the way he carries himself.
To understand why Red snowboards the way he does, why it's a big deal that he won gold, and why snowboarding's core community--even those not typically concerned with contest results, or the Olympics in general--has celebrated the win so heavily, you need to understand who Red Gerard is and where he comes from.
The Gerard Family
Like anyone, Red is a product of his upbringing. The Gerard family is large, tightknit, and welcoming--the type that creates a second home for close friends. Tucker Andrews spent a portion of his teen years staying with the Gerards.
"Dude, they're the best," Tucker says. "They're some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. So generous. They're just happy people hanging out, creating a positive environment for everyone. They're interested and they care. They're not telling you to get your shit together, telling you not to shred. They're hyped on everyone doing their own thing and totally back it."
The youngest of the boys in a seven-sibling family, Red's introduction to snowboarding can be attributed to his older brothers who got him on a snowboard early. Brendan Gerard has carved out a path for himself in snowboarding that veers far from the competitive realm and accompanying big-dollar sugar water sponsorships. His bad boy image is countered by an informed, open-minded and welcoming attitude. Status matters little to Brendan, be it social, economic, or otherwise, and he can get along with anyone not opposed to a good time. Brendan's relationship with and influence on Red is important to realize. Growing up as the younger brother of someone well-respected for stepping outside the traditional confines of professional snowboarding has had a significant impact on Red.
As long as I’ve known him, Red has been noticeably well-mannered and lacking the ego someone in his position could have--remember, he's had a degree of celebrity in snowboarding long before this recent Olympic medal. Having witnessed his brotherly interactions firsthand, I would attribute this humility to his upbringing, and Brendan seems to agree, "It's from our dad. We come from a family with tradition and morals. We're not full renegades all the time. I think he's a humble person because he comes from a large family, and we've had to be humble. I think that he's genuinely appreciative of what everyone has done for him, and he's grateful to be in the position he's in."
Mainstream media has had a field day painting the Gerards as wild partiers. Brendan's response? "They brought snowboarding into the Olympics; they wanted it there for entertainment. And honestly, as snowboarders we come rowdy. That's kind of how it is. We're not gonna change ourselves to come to the Olympics. We flew around the world to be there, but we're not just partying for Red. We're partying for snowboarding. We're celebrating for everyone who's dropping. We're cheering for everyone."
Red's Early Days
The Gerards lived outside Cleveland, Ohio when Red was born into a family with five older siblings--they now have a younger sister named Asher, as well. After Brendan and Trevor migrated to Colorado to attend high school in Crested Butte, the rest of the family found their way to Summit County. Red's introduction to snowboarding came at age two, and it wasn't long before those around him began to notice his uncommon talent.
"It was pretty eye-opening when we first saw him snowboard. It was just obvious he had the capability to do something amazing," says Brendan.
Trevor elaborates, "He'd just bomb into jumps. When I first saw him do a back three, it was kind of stylish and good-looking, and I was like 'This kid's got something.' He'd learn like five new tricks a day. He started progressing so fast."
"From the beginning, he wasn't afraid," says Tucker. "If you're down to hit shit, you're gonna figure it out. Brendan and I were always saying he's either going to be one of the best snowboarders, or he's going to get really hurt, and that might kind of stunt the whole program, you know? But luckily all those gnarly falls he took were when he was made of rubber. By the time it was getting a little more serious, he'd already figured it out."
The "it" he is referring to is board control, and Tucker has an ample amount. Red developed his own from observing riders like Tucker whom he looked up to and spent his early days chasing.
"I would say Breckenridge was his daycare," Trevor explains. "And whoever was there would just go board with him all day."
Brendan adds, "There was a period between when he was between ten and twelve where you could legitimately just drop him off at the hill and not even know who was there but just that there was somebody there who was going to ride with him."
In the absence of a formal coach, Colin Walters was a figure that played a similar--or at least subsidizing--role for Red starting in early elementary school. "I met Red when he was seven years old. Brendan was in town, staying at our house, and suggested taking some runs with his little brother. They called him "Shred G" at the time."
Colin formed a brotherly bond with Red. "He would hit me up whenever he got out of school,” he recalls, “because he didn't really have a crew of his own, and his main buddy that he snowboarded with, Brendan, wasn't living in Colorado, so we would just ride whenever we possibly could."
Part of a series by Colin Walters, the Redit 2 contains documentation of Red’s first foray into flipping.
The ability to comfortably go upside down on a snowboard has a profound impact on progression, and Colin recalls the day that Red learned to flip, "He really wanted to learn flips; that's all he talked about. We were filming the REDit 2, and he wanted to up his game, so we went to Park Lane, and sure enough, the first time he tried, he literally stomped a backflip clean on the very first jump in Park Lane. Then on the same run, he tried a frontflip on the fourth jump, and I think he washed out on that one, but the next run he put it down perfect. At that point, I knew the kid was an anomaly."
Why Red's Snowboarding Is Unique
At the age when most riders in his current position are getting into a winter sports club or their parents are hiring a personal coach, Red was ripping laps in Breckenridge's Park Lane with a crew around a decade his senior. He wasn't trying to keep up; he was. But he was also absorbing an understanding of snowboarding in its creative form, sometimes lacking in more regimented programs. He was a daily eyewitness to stylish riding.
"He didn't grow up in snowboarding the same way I did. I grew up watching the videos, Neoproto, Happy Hour, all that shit," says Brendan. "That's where I got my inspiration from. He never saw any of that, really. He saw it firsthand. He was on the hill watching the people he was riding with."
"Chedd, Kyle [Hay], Billy [Mackey]--he really liked Billy," Colin says. "Tucker and Red really got along too. And Tucker's attitude--just loving snowboarding--I think it had an influence on Red."
Growing up, Red set himself apart from other riders his age by doing tricks with style--as much as possible for someone three to four feet tall. "Brendan definitely got Red in line with that quick," explains Colin. "We had a rail in the backyard of that house we all lived at in Breckenridge. I specifically remember Red trying to learn boardslides that year, but he was just so tiny. It's hard for someone that size to have board control. He would jump into boardslides kind of crooked. And Brendan would be like, 'Nope. That sucked. Gotta go between the bindings.' It was very apparent that Brendan wanted Red to do shit proper, and at a young age I think Red picked that up and began to understand and value proper snowboarding."
As Red's small stature lengthened, his inevitable little kid style dissipated until one day it was gone. At this point, he’s recognized for his style and board control. When you watch Red snowboard you get the feeling he's having fun. He looks loose, and it's part of what makes his riding so aesthetically appealing.
Trevor provides this explantation: "I think a lot of that comes from the way his riding was shaped. It didn't come from being raised on contests. It came from genuinely having fun out there. He looks like he's having a good time is because he's having a good time. There are days he goes snowboarding at the resort from nine to four then rides the backyard until he goes to sleep. He'll ride ten hours a day."
"They wanted him to do Team Summit when he was young," Trevor adds. "But he didn't want to because he hated riding with coaches; he just wanted ride with the boys."
So that’s what he did, and Red established himself in snowboarding without a coach. But the US Snowboarding Team took note, and eventually he integrated into his first formal snowboard program.
While balancing a hectic contest schedule, Red has already begun to establish himself in snowboarding’s backcountry and filming realm, as evidenced in his segement from TransWorld SNOWboarding‘s Arcadia, above.
"When he finally joined the US Team, Dave Reynolds became his coach," continues Trevor. "Red doesn't necessarily use coaching in the traditional sense, but it's a good program for him and gives him structure where he otherwise wouldn't have it. He’s made a lot of his closest friends through the team too."
Brendan elaborates, "It was always a balance. He would have the US Team, and he would have things he had to do with them, but he still wanted to just go ride with the homies too, you know? In the beginning, he really didn't want to do that US Team stuff, but in order to get him out of classes and stuff we kind of had to make it official."
Coached or not, contest or freeriding--a day on a board is a good day for him, and Red has pushed his time on-hill to the maximum each year. Amid the rigorous competition regiment required to get where he’s at, the self-proclaimed “sledneck” has spent what little downtime he’s had between contests filming in the backcountry and stacked enough footage to produce video parts in TransWorld SNOWboarding‘s last two feature films, Insight and Arcadia. A balance of contests and filming was normal in an era of snowboarding Red is too young to remember. These days, it’s a rare demonstration of uncommon dedication. But what specific form snowboarding takes doesn't seem to matter much to Red; he loves it all.
Colin sums it up, "He's always snowboarded because all he wants to do is just frickin' shred, and that's the coolest, purest form of snowboarding there is."
Red Winning Gold
His casual approach combined with unwavering enthusiasm that shows through each time he straps in is part of what makes Red so well-liked within the snowboard community he grew up in. There are plenty of parallels that can be drawn to Sage Kotsenburg's win in Sochi. He's not just waving the US flag; he's waving the flag for every one of us who've dedicated an inordinate amount of our lives to snowboarding.
"This is a big win for snowboarding," says Brendan. "We brought him up. I'd like to think I have a lot of friends in the community and just bringing him around, people were so hyped on him being a little ripper. To understand where he learns his tricks, it's from that. It's because he goes to the hill, and all the best riders want to ride with him because they think he's awesome."
While chatting with Red last spring, it was apparent he hadn’t yet grasped the magnitude of the Olympics, a point he admits to in his somewhat viral press conference, and in that same conversation, when asked about training for the event, he said this with utmost sincerity: “I would love to learn some new tricks–not even for the Olympics or anything, but just so my snowboarding gets better. It gets boring doing the same stuff.” That attitude is why he represents snowboarding as a snowboarder.
I was in a Glacier, Washington cabin with no cell service, cable, or WiFi, for the Mt. Baker Legendary Banked Slalom when Red put down his winning run in Korea. We showed up late to the viewing party at a neighboring internet-equipped house. With men's slopestyle having just wrapped, the place was abuzz. The agreement was that they would replay the finals and no one who knew the results would say a word. We were instructed not to connect our phones to the WiFi because we would know immediately via text and/or Instagram who won. Ironically, I knew in that moment that Red had taken Gold. LBS is a gathering of snowboarding's core community, and Red is the rider that would elicit the barrage of messages and posts among this crowd.
An immense amount of pressure was riding on Red’s third and final Olympic slopestyle run. With the casual style you see from him while lapping with friends, he flowed from feature to feature and stomped every one.
"Dude, it was awesome," says Tucker Andrews, who was staying down the road in Glacier. "We were sitting in the house, and we didn't have any internet, but somehow we had cable. When Red landed his run, we were tripping out, 'cause we all know he's such a good snowboarder and a good kid. He's just the guy you want to root for. It changed everything when he did that. It was kind of like when Sage won--the same feeling. It's just what you wanted to see for snowboarding in general. It felt like a win for everybody, you know? It brought good energy to the whole weekend, at a completely different event. The homie won. It was perfect, man. I'm just so stoked that whole fam was over there and got to witness it."
18 of them, to be precise.
Colin was tuned in from Colorado. "I was hysterically jumping up and down," he says. "I literally screamed like a child. I'm surprised my neighbors didn't call the police.
Since Red has been catapulted into overnight stardom, the exact approach that has made him and his family such a fixture in the snowboard community has seemingly shocked mainstream media, or at least given them a storyline to latch on to. Of course there are the partying headlines and Red's Jimmy Kimmel appearance that only fueled the fire. Then there's the "Teen Olympian overslept, lost his coat, and cursed on TV" headline that's seemingly been used by every non-endemic media outlet from Thrillist, to Daily Mail, to the New York Times.
While far more exaggerated and damaging information has been peddled in the form of news, it's interesting to see how something so trivial and normal is magnified and scrutinized for clicks in an Olympic context.
Trevor explains the "sleeping in" scenario, "So him and Kyle Mack were rooming together, and they were up until 11:30 the night before watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine. In the morning, their alarms went off twice, and Kyle said, 'Hey Red, we should get up.' That's it. Of course that somehow got twisted into the idea that they almost missed their runs or something like that."
"Regular news isn't entertaining," says Brendan, "You know, they have to manipulate it to make it entertaining, otherwise people aren't going to read it."
And the jacket? "I guess he just couldn't find his jacket, so he borrowed Kyle's," says Trevor. "I mean, how many times have you forgotten something or used someone else's?"
Of course, there's also the cursing on television that everyone’s been talking about. Trevor responds to that as well. “I mean, it was just his first reaction. He was not expecting to do that well, by any means. He was happy with his run and saw the score and was shocked. He's a 17-year-old boy; it's what came to his mind.”
What it all Means
Red’s appeal is transcendent. From snowboarding’s most dedicated class and each of its subsets, who’ve known what Red was capable of, or likely known him personally, since before his teen years, to your aunt and uncle who found his relaxed, unpolished attitude charming when they saw him on their favorite talk show, we can’t help but like the kid. Part of snowboarding’s draw has always been in its raw elements, but corporate dollars have a way of rounding our more rugged corners. What we need as snowboarders is an ambassador representative of what is real about this activity we obsess over, and Red is that.
Like Tucker, like Brendan, he is a snowboarder's snowboarder. In Red's case, however, he's had the opportunity to demonstrate on a world stage the loose approach and style of riding celebrated by snowboarding’s core.
What he decides to do from here, I hope is left up to him and dictated by outside forces as little as possible. But I think it’s too early to ask that question. For now, we can celebrate that a 17-year-old who’s madly in love with snowboarding is representing us to the globe, and regardless of the path he wanders, we’ll be behind him.
"He found success at a young age by sticking with what he likes to do, and what an amazing accomplishment that is for someone to trust their gut and do what they love,” says Colin. “What a great lesson that we could all learn from."