PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – For Red Gerard, “big air” has less to do with vaulting himself off the snowboarding jump, more to do with the journey he’s been on since he became an Olympic gold medalist.
The surprise champion has logged some 18,000 airline miles on a post-victory tour that took him from Pyeongchang to Los Angeles to New York, and now, back to South Korea. Ten days after his victory on the slopestyle course, Gerard returned to the snow Wednesday, where he qualified for the final of the big air contest – the newest, highest-flying snowboarding event at the games.
“I slowly, definitely figured out what was coming with it all,” Gerard said of the spoils of being an Olympic champion. “But I had no clue what was going to happen because I never really saw myself winning a gold medal.”
But he surrounded himself with people who did.
They had a victory plan all along.
And so, Gerard went on “The Jimmy Kimmel Show,” sat with Kelly and Ryan, interviewed on “CBS This Morning.” There was a photo shoot with “People.” A video interview with “Time.” A big spread with “Sports Illustrated.” The list goes on. His agent, Ryan Runke, can barely keep up with all the phone calls. Sponsorship and media opportunities are flooding in, and the mission isn’t so much about grabbing everything he can, but finding the right fit.
“We wanted to strike first and fast,” Runke said.
Gerard’s story is custom-made for the 5-minute TV hit. One of seven siblings, his family moved from Cleveland to the mountains of Colorado when he was young, and that’s when his snowboarding career started humming. At the slopestyle contest, his brothers brought the party to the mountain, shotgunning beers at 8:30 a.m . One sister, Tieghan, has a popular food blog that still boasts nearly double the number of Instagram followers as Red. (Though Red has spiked from 91,000 to 241,000 over the past 10 days, and the gap is closing).
There’s also the feature park he built in his backyard, where he still takes runs and where neighborhood kids are invited to come and ride any time.
“That’s a real big hit,” Gerard said. “You guys love that one.”
Add Olympic gold to the mix and you get … this.
While Gerard is hardly the first Olympian with a chance for multiple medals, his opportunity to cash in is different because slopestyle came on the third day of the Olympics, followed by a 10-day gap, and then qualifying for big air. The final is Saturday.
Instead of hanging around the village, taking selfies at speed skating and checking out hockey games, Gerard’s people had him strike well before the U.S. audience starts focusing on March Madness and other pursuits. He also didn’t have as much competition, since most of the rest of the U.S. athletes were stuck in South Korea for, you know, the Olympics.
“He hit the window at the right time, and that’s a key to success when you’re trying to cut through the clutter,” marketing expert Joe Favorito said. “He’s been able to do these things. Might he miss some things that are going on in the Olympic Village? Sure. But he’s young enough that he can go experience that the next Olympic cycle if he’s still competing.”
What about preparing for big air?
Gerard only missed a single day of training. He’s 17, far better suited to bounce back from the jet lag than he might be in 20, or 10, or four years down the road.
“If I didn’t do good in this event, it’s like, ‘Whatever,’ I really don’t care too much,” he said. “If I’m being totally honest with you guys, I never really wanted big air to be in the Olympics.”
He’s more a fan of slopestyle, where the course includes three jumps and a variety of rails at the top – a large canvas over which a good rider can showcase all his skills. Big air is the “Short Attention Span Theater” event of the Olympics – a 3-second exhibition of who can throw the single best trick.
But the Olympics wanted more snowboarding, and who was 17-year-old Red Gerard to say ‘No?’
And besides, there are other benefits to sudden fame.
“I was kind of on board with it,” he said, “because I knew I’d get a lot of airline miles.”