BONGPYEONG, South Korea — Silverthorne board-riding phenom Red Gerard stepped up in the highest pressure contest of his life and earned the U.S. its first gold of the PyeongChang Olympics on Saturday.
On his final of three runs, the easy-going 17-year-old spun a technical, creative run through the course's byzantine rails — which he called a jungle — and then stomped huge airs, culminating with flawless triple-cork 1440.
Gerard was the only competitor among the top 12 to hit a quarter-pipe launch on the second hit. The jump posed a problem for him on his first two laps through the course. He thought, briefly, about taking the main jump, but said his spin - a double-cork 1080 - off the main hit would not impress the judges.
"It's a little bit different and I try to be different in my runs. I just look for different lines," he said, draped in an American flag after dozens of interviews with international media at the base of the slopestyle course. "I felt like it was a good run. I was really excited on that I was just hoping to make the podium."
The run pushed him to the top of a finals laden with four Norwegians and four Canadians - the superpowers of slopestyle. After his final run, with a score of 87.16, there were four more riders to go. Those riders were the sport's heaviest of hitters though.
Canadian slopestyle superstar Mark McMorris, who held the lead for most of the competition before Gerard's final run, bobbled on his final lap. So did Norway's teenage phenom Marcus Cleveland.
Canada's Max Parrot, the top qualifier, stomped his tricks in the final run of the contest, but it wasn't enough to unseat Gerard. Parrot thought about trying that quarter-pipe hit on the second jump but decided against that.
"Too dangerous for sure," Parrot said. "Red took a big risk and it paid off. I think the judges really liked that. He had a pretty creative run."
As he waited for Parrot's score, Gerard stood in the finish corral holding his head. Behind him, more than a dozen of his friends and family raged, waving flags such as "We're here to get Gerarded" and giant pictures of his face. Gerard leaned over the fence and chatted with IOC president Thomas Bach in a conversation surely he would be sharing later in the crowded media zone.
"He just said, 'What were you think during all those spins? And I said I just wanted to land a run and that was about it."
Parrot's 86 points bumped his Canadian teammate McMorris to bronze, his second third-place Olympic finish. McMorris' best score was 85.2.
Gerard said he didn't realize just how big the Olympics are. He grew up watching the Dew Tour and X Games, the biggest event in snowboarding.
"The Olympics to me is just another snowboarding event. I'm just happy it brings everyone together and we can have a good competition," he said.
As he walked away from the venue, heading to doping and a press conference, dozens of his friends, family and fans roared. He embraced his mom and dad, his aunts and uncles, his siblings. They beamed and screamed.
A few minutes earlier someone asked Gerard how much fun they were having
"I'm sure it's a ton," he said. "I'm pretty sure I saw a video of them shotgunning beers at 8:30 a.m., so I'm pretty sure they are doing just fine."