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Olympic freeskiing favorite fought an uphill battle

Nick Goepper has heard it before -- and it never gets any funnier.

"People love to say, 'You're from southern Indiana? Oh, that's a skiing mecca,'" he said, rolling his eyes. "Happens all the time."

He understands the joke. Conventional wisdom dictates Midwesterners should stick to speedskating and hockey -- sports that can be played on surfaces as flat as Indiana farmland. But Goepper, 19, has long known something the geography snobs might never understand:

You don't need high elevations or real snow to find success on skis. You don't even need them to become an Olympic skier anymore.

Goepper will head to Sochi, Russia, next month as a medal favorite in slopestyle skiing, an X Games export that will make its Olympic debut along with halfpipe, another freeskiing discipline. Slopestyle is a judged sport in which athletes compete on twin-tip skis and perform tricks on a sloped course filled with obstacles such as rails and quarterpipes.

"Skiing slopestyle is one of the most accessible snow sports because you don't need 3,000 vertical feet to do it," Goepper said. "All you need is a little jump and some metal to slide on."

The sport's modest requirements served Goepper well as he grew up in Lawrenceburg, Ind., a town of about 5,000 along the Ohio River. He learned to ski at 5 when his mother took him to Perfect North Slopes, a nearby resort where the largest hill has a vertical drop of just 400 feet and the annual snowfall averages about 24 inches.

"At first I hated it," he said. "But once I figured I could go fast and jump off stuff and spin, I just loved it."

Though Perfect North is open only three months a year, Goepper believes he logged more time on the slopes than skiers who grew up in Breckenridge, Colo., and Park City, Utah. He would show up every day after school and ski for five hours on mostly manmade snow. On the weekends, he would arrive about 9:30 a.m. and stay until 9:30 p.m.

Taking advantage of the short lift lines and the Midwestern penchant for night skiing, he could squeeze in more than 100 runs on a Saturday if he limited his bathroom breaks and passed on socializing with friends in the lodge.

"I got as much time as people do out west," he said. "Even though we have a short winter, I still got a lot of time on the snow."

During the interminable offseason -- which typically ran from early March until early December -- Goepper would practice his flips under the watchful eyes of his younger sisters, both gymnasts. He installed rails in his backyard that he would coat with soap and water so he could glide easily over them.

After finding success at smaller Midwestern competitions, Goepper earned a scholarship at 15 to the Windells Academy, an Oregon boarding school that caters to athletes who compete in action sports such as skiing, snowboarding and skateboarding. Within a few years, he was winning X Games medals and Dew Tour competitions.

He became the first American man to qualify for the Olympic freeskiing team in December after finishing second at a Grand Prix event at Copper Mountain in Colorado. A week earlier, he won gold at a competition in Breckenridge, where he skied without poles because of a broken hand.

"It's a dream come true," he said after making the team. "The Olympics add a bit more pressure, but we're just out here trying to get creative and have fun."

Though the rest of the U.S. Olympic slopestyle athletes hail from traditional skiing states such as Colorado and Vermont, the Grand Prix circuit has a small contingent of Midwestern competitors, including Park Ridge native Ashley Battersby.

Battersby, who was favored to make the Olympic team before sustaining an injury in December, began her career at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva, Wis. Her parents were ski instructors there, and Battersby would tag along almost every winter weekend.

Like Goepper, she and her three brothers hit the slopes when they opened and skied until they closed for the night.

"My parents would have to call the ski lifties to have them kick us out," she said.

Grand Geneva's tallest hill has a vertical drop of about 200 feet, laughable by western U.S. standards but perfectly suitable for what Battersby and her brothers wanted to do. The siblings would devote their days to packing snow to create jumps and laying down PVC pipes to use as rails, then testing new tricks.

The ski patrol inevitably would come knock down the jumps or place bamboo sticks around the obstacles to discourage their use. The Battersbys, however, could not be deterred.

"They couldn't really kick us out or ban us because our parents worked there," Battersby said. "We'd just go and pull out the sticks and rebuild whatever was destroyed."

Battersby, 25, moved with her family to Park City in 2002, and she started entering slopestyle competitions within her first year there. Considered one of the most technically skilled rail riders in the sport, she won her first U.S. Open in 2008 and her first X Games medal in 2010.

"I don't have the same background as most skiers," Battersby said. "But I didn't need it."

Battersby and Goepper both want that message to resonate next month, especially with Midwesterners who might be getting their first exposure to the twisty-turvy world of freeskiing.

"The Olympics are going to bring a lot of attention to the sport and bring it into the mainstream," Goepper said. "I hope it inspires kids who live in places like Indiana or Illinois or Michigan who don't have the big mountains. Maybe it will spark something for them."

sstclair@tribune.com

Twitter @stacystclair

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