Returning Olympic Medalist Nick Goepper: Why I Spoke Out About My Substance Abuse, Mental Health

"I think just growing up and being more comfortable in my own skin really helped me be more open and candid with the public about some of those personal struggles," he says

Nick Goepper will tell you himself: He always has something to prove.

Maybe, if it wasn’t his upcoming freestyle ski event at the 2018 Winter Olympics, the 23-year-old medalist would be focused on, say, being the best surfer or being the best skateboarder or maybe having the nicest truck.

But he’s not thinking about any of those things, even if he wanted to. He’s thinking about his skiing, because that’s what everyone else is going to be thinking about, too.

“I think I can ski better and I’m going to ski better here,” he told PEOPLE in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a week and change before he is set to compete in men’s slopestyle at the Games, an event in which competitors perform a variety of tricks and jumps down a mixed-terrain course, not dissimilar in skateboarding.

At that same competition four years ago, in Sochi, Russia, Goepper took bronze in a rare single-nation sweep of the podium alongside teammates Joss Christensen (gold) and Gus Kenworthy (silver).

Still, his performance dissatisfied him in some way, strange as he realizes that can sound to others.

“Just being as competitive as I am, I really, really want to win a gold medal,” he says. “And that’s pretty much what I came here to do.”

Ever analytical, he says, “I’m confident that this will be a good event and I think there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve learned this season and just things that I have to tweak and just be better at, so I know what I have to do.”

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“Even though I might have a stack of accomplishments, I still have something to prove,” explains Goepper, who is participating in Procter & Gamble’s “Love Over Bias” campaign. “And not just to other people but also just to myself, that I always want to just have a leg up. I always want to ski better than I ever have before.”

His third-place finish at the 2014 Olympics kicked off a whirlwind media tour — helped along by Kenworthy’s role in the rescue of a litter of Russian puppies, which landed on the cover of PEOPLE — after which he found himself grappling, then at 20 years old, with questions beyond his ability to succeed on the snow.

“One thing that I really struggled with after Sochi was, like, I really didn’t have any plan,” he says. “I mean, I was sort of on the Olympic celebration tour with all my friends and blah, blah, blah — and then there sort of was this aimlessness of just what in my day, I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be doing.”

“But there wasn’t anything that I was supposed to be doing,” he says. “I was just supposed to be getting back to work.”

He realizes that — now. But after Sochi, especially coming down from his post-Olympics high, Goepper found himself in an entirely different mindset, an experience he opened up about last month.

“That summer of 2014 I really experienced this, like, emotional distress and really just started to kind of slide emotionally,” he said in a video interview with the X Games.

In August 2014, while home in Indiana and amid his anxiety and depression, he threw rocks at several cars, authorities said. He later came forward voluntarily with what he’d done, paid back his victims and apologized.

“It was real messed up, but I would go to bed at night and I would want the night to be like really long,” Goepper said in the video. “I would literally stay up all night because that was how the time would tick by the slowest — thinking that the morning would never come. And all of a sudden the sun would come up and I would be like, ‘Another day of feeling this way.’ ”

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“I mean, there came a point when I was drinking every day and I was constantly thinking about ways to end my own life,” Goepper said.

“I was, like, flirting with that idea [of suicide], I wasn’t ballsy or committed enough to actually do it,” he said. “It was more like a really messed up way of saying ‘help me’ but without just saying it to a friend or a family member.”

A “huge turning point” came after Goepper sought recovery at a rehab center in Texas, in the fall of 2015: “Talking to other people and just like befriending other people at this recovery center, where I could relate to and I could talk to and I could like share similar stories with, that was hugely inspiring,” he said in the X Games video.

Talking to PEOPLE last week, Goepper said the decision to speak out about his post-Sochi issues “really comes down to just me being comfortable with who I am.”

“I’m not necessarily trying to be a big advocate or a spokesperson or anything like that,” he says. “Who knows, I might down the road, once I become even more comfortable and learn more about this.”

“But I think just growing up and being more comfortable in my own skin really helped me be more open and candid with the public about some of those personal struggles,” he continues, “and especially being in a position of a public figure, I think it’s a really good thing to do that.”

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On the snow this weekend, Goepper says he is looking forward to showing “smooth, consistent, technical, difficult skiing.” (He pulled off a double cork 1440 in Park City, Utah, a few weeks back, giving him a days-long confidence booster.)

And after that?

“Some people lately have referred for me to be like one of the veterans, or like one of the older guys. I haven’t even gotten close to the first half of my career being over yet — I mean, I’m only 23. I feel great,” Goepper says. “I love the idea of really having an athletic career for a while. There’s just so much more to learn, there’s so much more to master, there’s so many more places to go and stuff. So I’m just really excited for the rest of the journey.”

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