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First U.S. Olympic medals of the 2018 Games offer a lesson in opportunity, perseverance

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Red Gerard shrugged and then put his mitten-covered hands on his helmet like he couldn’t believe what was happening.

Chris Mazdzer ripped the windshield from his helmet, threw it on the ground, and yelled as his teammates and coaches ran to him.

Two Olympic moments that no one expected illustrate the power of seeing possibility in every moment — even our struggles.

Gerard is a 17-year-old who, after falling on his first two runs in the snowboard slopestyle final, said he just wanted to land a run in his first Olympics. He isn’t even finished with high school, and he was still trying to come to grips with the fact that he was the only American man to make the slopestyle final.

Mazdzer is a 29-year-old three-time Olympic luge athlete, who’d finished 13th in both of his previous Games. A month ago, it looked like his season was unraveling, and he hadn’t been on a World Cup podium in two years.

In both cases, there was no epiphany that allowed them to pull off their glorious upsets — making U.S. Olympic history in both cases. Gerard’s gold at 17 makes him the youngest American to ever win a snowboard gold, while Mazdzer’s silver medal becomes the first men’s individual Olympic medal of any color for the U.S. in luge.

For the slight, soft-spoken, baby-faced Gerard and bearded, talkative and effusive Mazdzer, the breakthroughs came simply because they kept working.

Just before Gerard’s stunning gold-medal run at the Phoenix Freestyle Park, the teen was asked about his goals in light of the fact that he’d fallen in his first two runs Sunday.

“Most of all, I’d just like to land once,” he said. “I’d just like to land a run. … That’s why I came here.” He fielded questions about how he chooses his lines and what tricks he throws, but mostly, he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Olympic spotlight.

He was grateful just to be at the Games, expecting only to have fun and gain experience. In fact, he woke up late for Sunday's final and had to borrow a teammate's coat for the competition.

And then he laid down one of the most creative and flawless runs of the day, beating the best in his sport. He stood at the bottom, waving his arms now and then, signaling to fans and fellow snowboarders that he couldn’t quite believe he was going to earn an Olympic medal, let alone gold.

“I’m ecstatic,” he said afterward. I can’t believe I got to land my run. Just to land a run would have been plenty for me. To get on the podium, but to get first, it’s crazy.”

Standing in the finish area, realizing he was going to win a medal, he said he was just anxious for the waiting to end.

“I think I was mind-blown, to be honest,” he said. “I wasn’t really thinking about anything. I was just jaw-dropped. I honestly though it could have been a dream.”

Mazdzer’s season was a struggle from the start. He took to social media a month before earning his spot on the U.S. team revealing the kind of self-doubt and angst that even the world’s best grapple with as they chase Olympic glory.

“There comes a point where giving it everything you have and believing in yourself starts to fade away, and I’m almost to that point,” he wrote. “For some reason unknown to myself, things are not working out as planned. There is a light somewhere in this dark cave that I feel like I am stumbling aimlessly through at times, and you better … believe I’m going to find it.”

He never stopped training.

His teammates and coaches attest to his relentless work ethic, even as he finished in the middle of the pack most races. He was ranked No. 16 in the world heading into the Olympics, and no one expected him to become the first U.S. man to achieve an Olympic podium.

But after two runs, he was a fraction of a second from bronze (.002), and his confidence began to kick in. He’d done the work, now he could rely on his training and experience.

“That final trip down was a lot of fun actually,” he said after his third run set a track record at Alpensia Sliding Center. “It’s weird. This is probably the race I was the least nervous for. … I knew I could do it. And then I almost didn’t. I didn’t drive out of curve eight like I should have, but I corrected. It was a blast. It didn’t feel as crazy as it probably looked.”

As if they couldn’t quite believe it, reporters kept asking Gerard how he battled nerves or chose such a tough series of tricks with so much on the line. He continued to tell them that he just focused on snowboarding. He looked at the course, and he thought about what might be fun or what might be challenging, and then he attempted it. He didn’t consider what might make him a gold medalist, only what might allow him to enjoy the opportunity he’d earned to compete against the world’s best.

Mazdzer was asked how he found faith in himself after a season in which his best finish was sixth place.

“I was at an all-time low,” he said. “But when I’m feeling down, my instinct is to work harder.”

Opportunity isn’t always illuminated with a spotlight or lined with red carpet.

It may not even be inviting or comfortable.

In fact, the most intriguing opportunities may actually appear to be certain disappointment, humiliation and even disaster.

So how does one achieve what no one else has?

Turns out the same way any of us, even the most risk-averse among us, will accomplish our goals.

Mazdzer smiles and shrugs, as if reiterating how obvious the answer is.

“Just not giving up.”