Olympian Goepper shares story of depression with Summit students
SUMMIT COUNTY — After Nick Goepper concluded his speech at Summit High School Thursday morning, dozens of SHS students shuffled through the auditorium aisles to position themselves for selfies, Snapchats and autographs with the Olympic medalist.
One of those students was Colby Webster, an 18-year-old senior who listened intently from the third row, center aisle. During the speech, Goepper, an Indiana native, opened up about his depression and struggles with alcohol. Like many of the other students, Webster, a lifelong skier at Goepper’s seasonal ski hometown of Breckenridge, asked the Pyeongchang slopestyle silver medalist to sign his snow-blade ski-board.
“It’ll go up on the wall,” a smiling Webster said.
Nearly two months removed from his silver medal slopestyle run at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Goepper decided a few weeks back that he wanted to speak with high country students to share his story of overcoming depression.
So he reached out to local schools, such as Summit High, Frisco’s Snowy Peaks School and Clear Creek High School, to inquire if there’d be a chance to talk with students.
Summit High, and the other two schools, were more than happy to host Goepper. And on Thursday just before noon, as the students departed the auditorium for their lunch hour, Goepper was happy to hear his message about harnessing fear and finding purpose resounded with the students. Students like Webster, who is a lacrosse player and telemark skier.
“Honestly, what he said about fear is what I’ll take away from the speech,” Webster said after the presentation. “Because fear is such a prevalent thing in our lives, and I really think that overcoming it and allowing it to become a push factor instead of a pull factor is really what he got to.”
For Goepper, connecting with students was up there with three X Games wins.
“I never thought that I’d be talking to a high school and trying to give life lessons to kids, but if they can take some of those and take them into their lives and improve themselves, then that’s a great feeling,” he said.
During Thursday’s speech, Goepper took the assembled students through his life’s journey.
He spoke of how he got into skiing back in his home state of Indiana, where the Midwest scene was vastly different than the winter wonderland of Breckenridge. And when he’s visited his relatives in Michigan, he told the audience he’d ski at a place called Bittersweet Ski Area.
“It literally was the town dump,” he said. “It was probably 250-feet tall, but they put a couple of lift towers on it and carved out a couple of runs.”
Goepper also recalled how back in 2008, during the financial crisis, he was forced to knock door-to-door selling candy bars across his hometown to save up to purchase a ski pass for his hometown ski area, Perfect North Slopes.
“I made $500 selling candy bars for a semester,” Goepper said with a laugh.
His love for skiing drove Goepper through his teen years to become the best athlete he could become. And four years ago, his hard work paid off when, at the age of 19, he earned the right to represent the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Goepper went on to win a bronze medal in the debut Olympic slopestyle event. But what followed, he made clear to the students, was the beginning of his unraveling from Olympic hero to depressed soul searcher.
Goepper was open about the fact that the media and attention from the public was a challenge for him at such a young age. The appearances on shows like The Late Show with David Letterman weren’t an easy thing to put in perspective.
“At the end of the day I’m a skier, not a celebrity,” Goeeper said. “But I remember sitting in a Starbucks in New York City a couple of days after the (2014 Olympic) games, and this lady is on her iPad and looks up and says, ‘It’s you. It’s you!’ She comes over to me, and then I realized, ‘She knows who I am.’”
What followed in the wake of the Sochi Olympics Goepper describes as a slippery slope. He gradually lost his love for skiing, and that coincided with him thinking about his purpose in life. A lot.
“I’d analyze everything,” Goepper said. “I was thinking way too much and I wasn’t doing enough. I’ve learned sometimes you’ve got to turn your brain off and you just have to do. You just have to go.”
What it led to for Goepper was a struggle with alcohol and depression. Things hit rock bottom, he told the students, when he considered ending his own life, Vodka bottle in-hand.
The struggle led Goepper to Great Oaks Recovery Center in Houston, Texas. Goepper told the students how in his first month there, he remained stubborn, unwilling to learn. But it was in his second month when he turned a corner.
“Making my bed,” Goepper said, “and I know that’s really simple, but I watched this commencement speech on YouTube, this Navy Seal gave this whole speech about making his bed. And that was honestly one of those little notches that kept going and going. That, and reading. It just took my mind off things.”
Less than four years later, a more mature Goepper returned to the Olympics and won a silver medal, the best American finish in ski slopestyle in South Korea.
TURNING THE PAGE
Back when he struggled with depression, Goepper said he had “FOMO” — or fear of missing out — when he saw all his peers attending college while he skied. He even went as far as to think he was selfish, touring the world.
These days, though, Goepper is at peace with his own journey. He has grown to love podcasts and books, and he is always looking to soak up knowledge, even if he isn’t at a university.
Perhaps more than anything, however, Goepper has realized the importance of being confident and proud of the tasks he’s accomplished, whether it was stomping his silver medal Olympic run, or continuing to educate himself through passages in a book.
Goepper doesn’t mince words when he speaks of himself. He knows that, at times, he can be an over-thinker, someone who over-analyzes much of what’s going on around him. In part, he feels, that’s what led him to his depression. So he focuses on hearing what others have to say.
“As I’ve gotten older,” he added, “I’ve really become more curious about listening to other people’s stories and how they got to where they are.”
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