For gold, by the Golds: Steamboat’s brother-sister snowboarding duo relate their journey to the Olympics
February 2, 2014
Taylor, 20, and Arielle, 17, were named Jan. 19 to the U.S. Olympic Team for snowboard half-pipe, capping a furious and fantastic drive to the top of the sport. Neither was exactly born to snowboard, however. Instead, it was quite the opposite for the children of Ken and Patty Gold.
Ken, for example, was a freestyle skier, coming into the sport during the hot dog era and being right there as coach Park Smalley helped foster and grow the freestyle skiing discipline in Steamboat Springs.
He didn't expect to raise Olympic snowboarders.
Ken Gold: I had nothing to do with it. I couldn't wait to teach them how to ski moguls but as soon as they were old enough to make a decision, they said they wanted to snowboard. I said, "What do you mean?" They said, "Sorry." They were going to the dark side.
Taylor Gold: I remember my friend Alex trying it, and to me, skiing was the same old thing and I was ready to try something new. I was 7 when I tried it first. I remember hating it that first day, but then it got really fun.
Arielle Gold: When I first tried snowboarding, I hated it. I couldn't stand up. I fell on my butt. I would come home every day and just be over it, but I kept going back and eventually got the hang of it.
Ken: We always put conditions out there like, "You can't snowboard unless you get straight A's in school." Then they got straight A's and that didn't work. So I thought about how else we could stop this? Then I remembered I was from that generation, with Park Smalley, and we were the renegades, the hot dog skiers, and we were the ones dressing funny and everyone was giving us a hard time. I realized this is an interesting parallel. Snowboarders have evolved in the same way, and the same legitimacy has come to snowboarding.
Growing up on a snowboard
Snowboarding quickly became a love, for Taylor, at least. He started watching the 2002 Olympics and then anything else he could find on TV, including the X Games, and decided, yeah, that's something he'd like to do.
Arielle, meanwhile, was more focused on riding horses. They both loved their early days in the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, however.
Taylor: The Winter Sports Club was the most fun part of my entire year. I loved getting off school and going up to ride and learn tricks with my friends. I remember sliding my first rail when I was 8. It's such a fun experience.
Arielle: On weekends, there were always USASA (United States of America Snowboard Association) contests we would drive down to, and it was always a nice adventure. I miss those days a little bit.
Spencer Tamblyn, former Winter Sports Club coach and current U.S. Snowboarding Team coach: I had taken a two-year break from coaching at the Winter Sports Club around 2004-05, during which time Heath Van Aken had come in to work with the upper-level freestyle kids that were on the team at the time. He worked with Matt Ladley a lot, and started to spend some time with the youngest competitor on the team, little Taylor Gold. He must have just been 8 or so at that time.
I was not working for the club, but I was on the mountain a fair amount. I kept seeing this very short kid in a big orange, puffy jacket just ripping the jumps and the pipe. He loved it, and it was apparent even then that he had skill and a very high demand in his athletic output.
Jon Casson, former Winter Sports Club snowboard coach and program director: Arielle was a sharp, smart and sassy young lady. When she was 7 or 8 years old, she was very strong-willed. She would do what she wanted. She knew what she wanted to do, and if we were doing something in practice she didn't want to do, she wouldn't do it.
Even at that age she was confident. As a confident girl at 9, they can be a little smart-alecky.
Tamblyn: I remember meeting Arielle out behind the Howelsen lodge on some little rails and jumps we had set up for pre-season training. Right away that night, as does anyone who meets her today, your first impression is, "Whoa, this girl is fiery." In character and in action.
Arielle: I was a stubborn little child. Still am. Taylor was always the sweet angel that just made me look like the devil.
Taylor: I'm just sweet in comparison.
Taylor was the first to get serious about competing, and by age 12, he had his first sponsor. A third-place finish in his age group in the national championships landed him on the Burton "Smalls" team, competing then with several athletes he still competes with today. Arielle, too, made the Burton team, but she never approached snowboarding the same way as her brother, at least not for a long time. She nearly quit the sport at age 15, the season before her career began to take off.
Casson: Taylor always worked really hard and this has always been his goal. When he was 11 or 12, I had no doubt he'd make it. By 12 or 13, Taylor had the look of a kid that could take it that far. It's hard to predict at that age. By 15 or 16, they discover cars and girls, but he persevered and lived and breathed snowboarding.
Taylor: I didn't really, honestly think (snowboarding) would go anywhere (for Arielle.) I was the one who cared about it, and she cared about riding horses more than snowboarding.
Arielle: I wasn't really having that much fun with it. We were training in Steamboat still and all my friends I used to ride with that were girls moved on. Maddy Schaffrick got on the (U.S. Snowboarding) rookie team and started doing her own thing. I was pretty much riding with (Taylor) and all his annoying little friends.
That was the point where I wasn't having much fun. It is fun to snowboard, but it's so much more fun to snowboard with friends.
Ashley Berger, former Winter Sports Club snowboarding coach: She was on the fence for a little while. I told her, "You'll never be a pro horseback rider, but you can definitely be a pro snowboarder." She said she'd never leave her horses and got super mad at me.
Arielle: Before that season (2011-12) was when I really was thinking about giving it up. I thought, "I guess I'll see how this season goes."
Arielle's break out
Success didn't immediately follow Arielle's turn to a more serious approach, but her results gradually improved and during the 2011-12 winter, those around her took notice, especially after she began to land 900s — 2 1/2 spins on one hit. Her best result came at the tail end of the season at the U.S. Open, where she placed fourth.
Taylor: She was doing these big (720s) and you could tell she really wanted to try the 900 and when she finally went for it, she definitely fully committed and came around and landed way against the wall. But that's how the first one always goes. Then, after that she got it pretty quick.
At the end of that spring when she learned it, she would put her hands down all the time, and that's why she got fourth and not third in that U.S. Open. Then the next year she wasn't putting her hands down anymore, so that's when she got just awesome results.
The 2012-13 season was a defining one for Arielle, thanks in part to the work she put in during summer 2012.
Arielle: I had just come off a season that was a little bit frustrating because I had gotten really close to the podium but was never on it, so yeah, going into that summer, it was the first summer I had really gone to the gym, worked hard and done everything I possibly could to make sure I was ready. I learned two 900s, which was pretty important for me going into that summer and that next year. I was really motivated.
It paid off in a big way first at the World Snowboard Championships in Stoneham, Quebec. Some of the world's top women were in Colorado training for the looming X Games — to which Arielle was not yet invited — and she won the half-pipe World Championship, setting the stage for a huge winter.
Arielle: That was my first podium in a higher caliber contest. It snowed a ton and the conditions were difficult. … World Championships was a little bit of a fluke with the weather and without many of the best athletes there.
Going into X Games, I was first alternate. I didn't expect to get into the contest. I was going in just to have fun.
Snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler pulled out of the competition at the last minute, however, and Arielle got a chance, placing third on one of her sport's biggest stages.
Arielle: I just wanted to land a run, especially that run with two 9s in it, so I was pretty motivated to put it down. I ended up landing all three of my runs, which I was beyond excited about. I landed on the podium and stayed there. It was a crazy experience, definitely not expected at all.
I just wasn't happy with the level of riding at (World Championships). I didn't ride well and none of the other girls were riding to the best of their ability either, so that made it a lot more rewarding when I did well at X Games where it was in really good conditions and everyone was landing good runs.
It felt a lot better even though I was in third rather than first. It felt like I earned it a little more.
Taylor's summer sweat
The 2012-13 winter put Arielle on the map. Endorsements began to roll in. The phone in the Gold house rang and rang with agents calling, eager for a new client. For Taylor, it made for some complex emotions, which he began to address in the summer. To improve, he tried to construct a run that could get him to the Olympics. At first, it only existed in his head.
Taylor: I was super jealous. I've wanted this for a really long time and, to be fair, she only wanted it the last few years. I was really happy to see her succeed, but at the same time, I was at world champs, too, and I didn't even make semifinals. I was like, "I need to start riding better." It was kind of a kick in the pants for me.
After the U.S. Open last year, I had put the (1200) and the (double cork 1080) into my competition run, so those were important, but I knew I needed at least one or two more tricks to bump me up from fifth place to the podium, so I was working in Mammoth (Calif.) on a trick called a backside 900. I suck at them. I couldn't do them at all.
Ken: He called me up and said, "Dad, I want to stay in Mammoth another week or two to work on this trick."
Taylor never perfected the trick, but he did find inspiration from a friend, who was having success with the double Michalchuk, a complicated twisting, flipping maneuver.
Taylor: Chase Josey who's on the rookie team with me, he learned it in Mammoth before I did. He landed it on his second try, so I was like, "Oh, that doesn't look that hard." Meanwhile I'm over here, trying to learn this stupid trick that I'm watching 13-year-olds do. I thought, "I'm going to work on that because the back 9 sucks and the double Michalchuk will score better anyway."
Ken: Three days after that, the first call I get is a text message with a picture from Spencer Tamblyn: "Landed it first time. I'm shaking. I'm crying."
Then they sent me another picture where Taylor does the two tricks back to back. As soon as I saw that, I said, "That's a game changer. No one in the world is doing that kind of combination."
Berger: I have a very brother-sister relationship with the Golds. … We got in a big fight last year because I told him he was being a wimp. He got so mad at me, he rode away and wouldn't talk to me for two weeks. It really shook him up.
I think it added fuel to his fire. He's always been good, but was being really conservative in his runs.
Taylor was ditching that conservative stance quickly. He tried the trick more than 100 times as the summer wore on, and when he got back on snow in the United States at an early season training camp at Copper Mountain, he was confident in a way he never had been before. The run he'd envisioned was coming together.
Taylor: Chase and I do it different than a lot of the other riders in a way that's safer and more consistent. Watching him learn it gave me confidence. With a lot of people, that trick is kind of off-limits because it's usually pretty dangerous. I've seen a lot of people get broken trying it. The way we learned it is great and it feels safe. I'm not very nervous about it.
Tamblyn: That was a huge sigh of relief. Not only did he have a new double flipping trick, it's very unique looking. He does it in a way no one else does.
Not only is it a game-changing trick for his run, but it was a big building block for his overall confidence.
Taylor: I really benefited because I did it so many times in the summer that by the time the winter came around, I was very confident I would be able to land it first try.
Into the Olympic hunt
The Olympics long had been on Taylor's mind and had creeped into Arielle's. Arielle said she and the other top riders were reminded about it in interviews on a regular basis a year ago, but it didn't begin to get real until this season approached. The Olympic team was to be decided in a series of five events, each rider's top two results being counted to determine the four men and four women who would make the trip to Russia. The Dew Tour in December in Breckenridge was the first event.
Arielle: It was a little nerve-wracking. This is the first Olympic qualifier and definitely going into those first two I just wanted to land runs and get results so I could relax and take some of the pressure off.
Taylor: I just wanted to start the year off by making finals. My goal for the first event was to just start it on a good note. Then, I just wanted to land a run in finals.
He qualified ninth, making the 16-rider finals with room to spare. In those finals, though, he even surprised himself, shooting all the way up to third place. Arielle was solid that day, too, placing fourth overall and second among Olympic-competing Americans.
Taylor: When I landed and got on the podium, it was mind-blowing because I wasn't expecting to be riding well enough to get on the podium until the next event or the event after, so just kicking it off with a good showing was important to me.
Until that point, I had never been on a podium, so that on its own was pretty crazy, and having that sinking in about how it positioned me for qualifying was pretty crazy, too. I knew that from there, if I kept landing runs, I only really had to land another run and I had a good chance of going.
Taylor knew he likely needed only one more really strong result to secure his spot. Arielle was in just as good of shape. One week later, they all-but secured their spots in Sochi at the second Olympic qualifier, a snowboarding Grand Prix event in Copper Mountain.
Taylor only barely made the finals, the 16th of the 16 riders to advance from the Dec. 18 prelims. It was different Dec. 21, the day of the half-pipe finals. That was a good one for the Golds.
Taylor: I was feeling pretty crappy that day. I had been sick for qualifying. At practice before finals, I barely practiced at all because I didn't feel very good. It was real cold and I had a throat thing, so I couldn't breathe very well.
Ken: The morning of qualifications I was driving him to the mountain and he was so sick he said he didn't think he could compete. I was putting on loud rock 'n' roll music to keep the energy up and giving some of my fatherly wisdom, ya know, "Michael Jordan scored 100 points with the flu one night, so it's possible."
Taylor didn't just survive. He excelled. He scored 90.25 on his first run, the highest score to that point in the season.
Ken: Because he had qualified 16th, he was the first guy to go, and his winning score was the very first run of the day. We had to wait for 31 runs, to get through all the guys twice. And you're not waiting on just anyone. You're talking about the best of the best. This whole energy is building all day. Finally the last guy to go is Greg Bretz, who had beat Taylor and Shaun White the week before, and he did his run exactly the same way he'd done it at Breckenridge and got a score three points below Taylor.
Taylor: In finals, I think being sick helped me because if I fall, at least I have a good excuse. I'm sick, so I didn't have any pressure. I just went and did my run. Sometimes when you're not feeling 100 percent, you don't feel the nerves as much. I'm planning on catching a cold right before I go to Sochi.
Ken: I was a freakin' idiot. I was jumping around, screaming. I ran up and tackled him. It was unbelievably emotional.
To top things off, Arielle had the best night of her season, too. She placed second scoring 91.25. It was her only podium of the qualification process and, along with her other strong result, enough to put her in a very strong position for qualifying.
The pressure built one more time, for the three final events of the qualification process, which were all crammed into one week in January, thanks in part to weather cancellations.
Three events were more than enough to make or break the dreams for any of the Olympic hopefuls, but Taylor and Arielle did well enough in the first two events, on Jan. 17, to ensure that on the final day of competition, Jan. 19, they were basically assured their first Olympics.
Taylor got a second-place finish in the third overall competition and a third-place finish in the fourth, guaranteeing him a spot on the team. Arielle placed as high as fourth, enough to get her on the team, too.
Arielle: I sat down with my coaches the night after those two qualifiers and they said we don't see any way I could possibly be bumped out. That was kind of when I started to really think about it, but even then I didn't fully relax until the actual announcement, until I knew for sure I was really going to the Olympics.
Casson: That was a whirlwind of a few days. I probably cried a bit. I shed a tear. The feeling was indescribable knowing all the work they put in.
Tamblyn: Honestly, it snuck up on all of us. We set goals including this Olympics as far back as six to eight years ago.
At the time you set a goal way off in the future like that, you just think, "Wow, that would be awesome, but what can we do today to follow that path?"
They have done just that and here we are.
I just got my ticket to join them in Sochi four days ago. I am so stoked I get to share the experience with them. Really, it has not fully sunk in for any of us. We did it. We're going to the Olympics.
Now it's on to Russia.