PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Nick Goepper didn’t wait to be invited to help.
While the rest of us visitors to the Rwandan village of Gatagara stood in a line waiting to pass globs of mud from one person to another so it could be shaped into bricks, the freeskier found himself a shovel and fell in with a group of men turning the driest patch of earth you’ve ever seen into a mud bog.
The 23-year-old Indiana native didn’t know it, but I’d covered his Olympic debut in Sochi. I watched as he, Gus Kenworthy and Park City’s Joss Christensen created one of my favorite Olympic moments — a sweep of the podium in one of the newest Olympic sports.
I thought maybe it was the fact that he’d won bronze and I was focused on Christensen, but Goepper was always the quietest in any press event, the easiest to overlook.
And here he was, silently doing a job no one in their right mind volunteered to do.
That was the beginning of seeing Nick as more than a talented skier. We were companions on a trip to Rwanda with Kids Play International, a non-profit started by former Olympic aerial skier Tracy Evans, who lives in Park City with her husband, Michael Land.
I’d written about the group for a few years, so when my youngest daughter graduated from high school, we decided volunteering with Kids Play would be the perfect way to celebrate.
I went as a mom and a woman who has held onto a life-long desire to visit the African continent. I did not go as a journalist. But, like many of my reporter friends can attest to, it’s difficult to see something worth writing about and not do what comes naturally — share it by writing about it.
The most revealing look at who Goepper is outside of sport didn’t come in that mud pit, where we were helping a village build a home for a woman, whose husband was murdered in that country’s genocide in 1994.
It came at a gathering for coffee and dessert at the U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda’s home on our second-to-last day in a country that will forever have a piece of my heart. Dressed in a tourist’s T-shirt and jeans, Goepper stood and offered one of the more moving moments of the trip.
He talked about making small talk with some of the children he was teaching on Olympic Day. He asked about their parents, and they stared at him blankly.
We could see the poverty in Rwanda. We could feel the pain. But sometimes the reality of the situations these children, these communities were recovering from was so jarring, it was as if someone punched you in the chest.
This was one of those moments for the skier, as he encouraged us all to keep finding ways to do good in whatever way appealed to us, in whatever situation called to us.
“To the Americans in here, or to the people in this room who are more privileged,” he said last June, “and we have such an opportunity, and I would say more a responsibility to go out into the world and get involved in things like Kids Play International, and just give back in some way, shape, or form to society that’s meaningful for you.”
I thought of this moment, of his words, when I watched him win silver in the ski slopestyle competition in Pyeongchang. I thought of his candor in discussing his battle with depression in the days leading up to the Games, and how he found peace in reaching out for help and learning to trust the love that other people offered.
And I wondered, even though I didn’t get to ask him, if the faces of those children stayed with him like they stayed with me — their smiles, their gratitude, their unfettered joy at just the opportunity to run and play and maybe enjoy a post-game boiled egg.
So I decided to share this video of Nick offering all of us some beautiful advice. Congratulations on being the first freeskier to win multiple medals, and thank you for being a reminder that we don’t have to be professional athletes to make the world a better place.
I unathletically, loudly and with much love, offer a Rwandan cheer (a freeski qilo) in your honor.